Two inmates identified as Ameen Hurst, eighteen, and Nasir Grant, 24, escaped from the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center (PICC) at 8301 State Road in the Northeast around 8:30 p.m. Sunday by cutting a hole in a fence surrounding a recreation yard.
A citywide manhunt is underway for the men, one of whom is awaiting trial for killing four people. The pair were apparently missing from the Philadelphia prison for nearly nineteen hours before officials knew they were gone.
Both suspects are to be considered armed and dangerous, especially Ameen Hurst, who was charged for committing three murders when he allegedly shot four people and killed two behind an apartment building on North 76th Street in March 2021. Then, just days later, officials say Hurst shot and killed another victim, chasing the victim (who had just been discharged from PICC) back onto the grounds of the jail and executing him.
The second inmate, Nasir Grant, was being held on narcotics and gun violations. Officials say the only connection between the two inmates is that they were housed in the same unit but in different cells.
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Hurst and Grant were recorded on surveillance footage cutting a hole in a fence at the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center on Sunday night. However, headcounts supposedly conducted by prisons officers at 11 p.m. Sunday, 3 a.m. Monday, and 7 a.m. Monday reported that all prisoners were accounted for, said Philadelphia Prisons Department Commissioner Blanche Carney. She said that the facility did not become aware of the escaped inmates until about 3 p.m. on Monday.
“We have protocols in place and those protocols were not followed,” Carney said at a press conference announcing the escape. “That yard should have been secured, and the fence not breached.” Outgoing Mayor Jim Kenney said at a news conference Monday evening that they want to find out exactly what happened.
“Clearly the system screwed up and people didn’t do what they’re supposed to do,” Kenney said in the same presser. “I’m really angry about it. There’s no reason for this, and if everyone did what they were supposed to do, we wouldn’t have this problem.”
The escape comes just one week after AFSCME Local 159, the Philadelphia correctional officers’ union, voted “no confidence” in the city’s prisons commissioner over “deplorable” conditions. On Tuesday, May 2, members of Philadelphia’s correctional officers’ union were unanimous in their “no confidence” vote in Commissioner Blanche Carney, claiming that Carney’s failure to address an ongoing staffing crisis and provide substantial support to improve the health and safety conditions of the four prisons under her jurisdiction.
“Enough is enough. Throughout Commissioner Carney’s seven-year tenure, the conditions of, and safety within, our city’s prisons have dramatically deteriorated,” said union President David Robinson. “That is not an accident; it is a failure of leadership. Meanwhile, our members — the corrections officers that work tirelessly to keep our prisons healthy, safe, and secure — have been continuously disrespected by the Commissioner’s failure to address the poor living conditions that our officers endure, and the poor living conditions that incarcerated Philadelphians experience.”
In a press release, Union officials noted that by the end of 2022, there were a whopping 805 staff vacancies at the Department of Prisons, representing 42 percent of all budgeted positions. An independent monitor assigned to oversee Philly’s prisons explained that the city’s efforts are not “aggressive” enough to solve the staffing crisis and improve conditions for more than 1,000 sworn correctional officers and 4,300 people incarcerated in the city’s four prisons. While the staffing crisis may account for why the inmates were not observed in their successful escape attempt, questions still exist as to how the escapees were able to access the tools needed to breach their cells and cut the fence line.
There is so much more to this whole story. This is just the culmination of the commissioner’s and the city’s actions going back years.
Sources within the prisons system tell Broad + Liberty that “the Commissioner refused to hire, or even replace maintenance staff going back ten years” claiming they could not attract applicants, but sources note that these maintenance roles were not publicly posted online, and that the sprawling municipal prisons complex was “down to three people for the past year at PICC.” At the same time, a company named U.S. Facilities received a contract to provide maintenance following the addition of a clause in the last contract with the dwindling municipal maintenance staff that allowed the city to bring in outside contractors if municipal workers were not able to do the job. The source expressed concerns as the remaining city maintenance workers are accountable for their tools, claiming that the contractors from U.S. Facilities do not have the same oversight.
Union officials said that the prisons are “historically unclear and unsanitary,” with a lack of routine maintenance. Older jail facilities are not being cleaned frequently, they argue. Some Philadelphia prison units are also not providing enough out-of-cell time for prisoners, which can have damaging impacts on mental and physical health and contribute to recidivism.
In 2022, ten inmates died while locked up in Philadelphia prisons, unrelated to the 29 inmates who died during the Covid pandemic at a rate 77 percent higher than the national average, according to the union. In Sept. 2021, a video leaked of an inmate at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Northeast Philly being stabbed multiple times without a guard in sight before crawling back into his cell.
“The union has diligently tried to work with the Commissioner to implement necessary reforms, but [Commissioner Carney] refuses to meet with us,” Robinson said. “Our needs have been ignored for far too long, we are now taking a pivotal step to tell everyone in this great city that her poor leadership is unacceptable.”
A spokesperson for Kenney’s office said that the administration said. “We appreciate the concerns raised by staff and continue to work with Commissioner Carney, who has the administration’s support and confidence, on our shared goal of ensuring good working conditions as well as safe, clean, humane environments for incarcerated people.”
John Mitchell, a spokesman for the Prisons Department, told Broad + Liberty that he could not speak to the escape as it was part of an ongoing law enforcement investigation, but said “they are still feeling the impact of hiring freezes due to the pandemic.” He noted that the mayor has just “authorized the Prisons Department to commence continuous hiring effective this May” following last week’s news of the union’s no-confidence vote.
During a budget hearing last month, Carney sent City Council prepared testimony about her department’s achievements and goals for the next fiscal year. The Department of Prisons is looking to hire a diversity coordinator to enhance workforce development, hire a wellness coordinator to provide staff with resources on work-life balance, and continue a hiring campaign to fill vacancies.
A source in the Prisons Department, who requested anonymity for fear of career retaliation, told Broad + Liberty, “There is so much more to this whole story. This is just the culmination of the commissioner’s and the city’s actions going back years.” Noting the Mayor and District Attorney’s platform on decarceration, “They deliberately understaffed these prisons on purpose so they would fail.”
A. Benjamin Mannes, MA, CPP, CESP, is a Subject Matter Expert in Security & Criminal Justice Reform based on his own experiences on both sides of the criminal justice system. He has served as a federal and municipal law enforcement officer and was the former Director, Office of Investigations with the American Board of Internal Medicine. @PublicSafetySME