(Photo by Max Marin)
In the summer of 2015, Brandan Hargrose was working in the upholstery shop at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, happy to be using his hands again, to have a job again, a hardscrabble routine for his life behind bars. This was where he made cushions for Pope Francis.
You might remember the chair carved by Hargrose and other inmates last year. It was a kind of welcome-to-Philly gift for the Pope on his Sept. 27 visit to Curran-Fromhold, the city’s largest detention center. Hargrose was among the 100 inmates to shake the Holy Father’s hand after a homily. He was also among the inmates who serviced an international press corps with feel-good reaction quotes about hope and penance and forgiveness.
And now, a year later, Hargrose and many others are still waiting for their day in court.
As of 2017, pretrial inmates comprise almost 30 percent of the population in the Philadelphia Prison System, which processes over 30,000 men a year through Curran-Fromhold’s intake center. According to Pennsylvania law, defendants are guaranteed a trial within 12 months of the complaint. While many pretrial stays can be as little as two weeks, Hargrose had already been locked up for 16 months on the day of the Pope’s visit.
“The law is you’re supposed to be in trial within 365 days,” Hargrose said recently. “Well, that’s a lie. Here I am now, 28 months later.”
Originally from Atlantic City, Hargrose attended West Chester University on a football scholarship and graduated in 2008 with a degree in special elementary education. Prior to his arrest, he was working his “dream job” as a supervisor at an at-risk youth facility in North Philadelphia. He volunteered to coach youth football for his eldest son’s team in West Philly and played semi-pro football for the Philadelphia Braves in his free time.
In May 2014, Hargrose was on his way to work when he learned about the warrant for his arrest. He turned himself in immediately. Police alleged that he tied up and robbed two women in two separate Wynnefield Heights hotels a month earlier. His bail was set at an unpayable $750,000, effectively making Curran-Fromhold his new home.
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Hargrose, 32, was 29 at the time of the incident. Besides a drunken disorderly arrest in college, he said this was his first serious encounter with the criminal justice system.
No injuries were reported in the alleged robberies. But even so, sky-high bails aren’t that unusual. Philadelphia routinely sets bail far above the court-recommended $9,000 to $75,000 for the highest-risk offenders. A recent Inquirer report found that even juvenile offenders charged as adults have seen bails of $500,000 or more.
Hargrose’s court docket shows a laundry list of delays, too. His court-appointed lawyer, Angelo Cameron, declined to comment on the proceedings. But records show that Hargrose’s first application for house arrest in 2015 was delayed. Even when his bail was eventually lowered from $750,000 to $500,000, neither he nor his family could manage a 10 percent bond payment for conditional release.
This summer, Hargrose was finally released on house arrest. He has an ankle bracelet and a trial date set for Oct. 11. He faces nearly a dozen charges, according to court records, including robbery and a firearms offense, although Hargrose claims he has never owned a gun and the police did not recover one from his property.
Hargrose’s ongoing story is one of many that got lost in the whiplash of the papal weekend last year. An examination of court records provides a glimpse at the divergent outcomes of a year in the justice system:
- Dino Robinson, who worked in the upholstery shop with Hargrose, remains in custody at Curran-Fromhold, where he has been since Aug. 2014. He faces drug and weapons charges.
- Amanda Cortes, one of the dozen or so female inmates interviewed by national press outlets during the pope’s prison visit, remains incarcerated at Riverside Correctional Facility. She’s coming up on six years waiting for trial for the alleged murder of her infant son in 2010. Her trial is finally set for December, court records indicate.
- By the time of the papal visit, 24-year-old Dechon Adams told the Catholic News Service that he had already spent 19 months in county jail on weapons charges. Records now show that he was transferred to Coal Township prison, a state facility for those who have been sentenced to longer terms.
- And Ed Gilchrist, who met the pope while serving a stint for selling marijuana to undercover officers? Gilchrist was released after serving his sentence, he told Generocity last week, and is working full-time at a granite retailer. Gilchrist said one of the biggest challenges of his reentry process was balancing a work schedule with probation officer meetings.
A half dozen other inmates from the pope’s Curran-Fromhold audience didn’t turn up in either local or state detention databases.
In the last year, the city has continued its slow but steady effort to unburden the city’s prison and court systems, most recently with Mayor Jim Kenney’s push to decriminalize the roughly 10,000 nuisance offenses these systems process each year.
This month also marked one year since Keir Bradford-Grey took the reins as the chief defender at the Defender Association of Philadelphia, which oversees a little over 200 public attorneys, each of which handle a “strikingly high” 300 to 400 cases each year. The national average is about 200 a year, Bradford-Grey said.
Bradford-Grey has concerns about the impact of pretrial incarceration for low-income individuals facing exorbitant bails, especially for low-level offenders. With help from a $3.5 million MacArthur Foundation grant, she said the city will be hiring bail advocates in October. The defender association will contract these individuals to identify weaknesses in the bail system.
"When we make people more desperate, we exacerbate the issues of crime."
Ideally, she said, criminal justice stakeholders should be able to identify which offenders do not pose a flight risk before trial, especially those with full-time work and family obligations.
“When we make people more desperate, we exacerbate the issues of crime. We just do,” Bradford-Grey said. “And we have to be able to look at ourselves — all of us in the system — and say, where can I change what I’m doing so that these things don’t happen?”
Hargrose says he never robbed anybody. If a jury acquits him, he’ll face an uphill reentry process to get his life back to where it was before his pretrial incarceration. He’s worried about clearing the violent allegations from his record, making up for lost time with his four kids and building up some financial security again.
“My biggest fear is not being able to get job making some nice money like I was doing,” Hargrose said. “I was making $41,000 a year at [his former job]. I need something like that back in my life. Hopefully I can go back there. But who’s to say? I’ve been gone for over two years.”
And if he’s found guilty?
In his years behind bars, Hargrose heard horror stories about inmates who spent decades fighting to prove their innocence in state prison. He says he doesn’t want to think about it. Right now, all he cares about is getting a chance to prove to a jury that he didn’t deserve to be in jail in the first place.-30-
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