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This story is part of TRACE (Toward Response and Community Equity), a year-long series that will track how and where the region’s government, philanthropic, civic and private sector is working toward a more just recovery.
“We’re entering what may be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus…”
Amid the inaugural pomp and circumstance, President Joe Biden made this dire prediction but also promised policies to eventually subdue a pandemic that has infected a staggering 24 million Americans and left a death rate expected to top 500,000 by the end of February.
But to be successful, the President will have to go to prison.
Coronavirus has disproportionately impacted the 2.3 million people incarcerated in correctional facilities where the country’s largest and most lethal outbreaks occur. These infection hotspots are even more dangerous than long term care facilities, bars or cruise ships. One out of every five state and federal prisoners is positive — a COVID-19 infection rate almost four times higher than the nation at large. The death rate is 45 percent higher than the general population.
For the incarcerated and the staff who monitor them, COVID-19 morphs from a crisis into a public health disaster.
This prompted Philadelphia officials — State Senators Anthony Hardy Williams and Sharif Street in Harrisburg and Councilmembers Cindy Bass and Kenyatta Johnson locally — to conduct public hearings within the past month to assess the extent of the problem in state and county jails and to develop solutions to stop the spread of the virus.
Pennsylvania’s statistics are better than the national average but still troubling.
The state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) is responsible for approximately 38,000 incarcerated individuals, 12,000 of whom are at very high risk for COVID-19 complications, and about 41,000 individuals under parole supervision. Currently, their website reports there are 1,652 infected inmates and 218 staff members.
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Still, the Council on Criminal Justice found the Commonwealth’s prisons had a lower COVID-19 death rate than PA’s community COVID-19 death rate. However, one out of seven state prisoners tests positive which is more than three times the statewide rate.
“Our population is significantly more vulnerable than the community,” Secretary of the Department of Corrections, John Wetzel, testified at the January 7 Senate Democratic Policy Committee hearing on the impacts of COVID-19 on the communities, employees and inmates related to our state prison system which was requested by Williams and Street. According to Wetzel, Pennsylvania’s correctional facilities rank 4th in the nation for the lowest instances of COVID-19, but warned the spread of the disease could only be halted with the continued reduction of prison populations and a 70% vaccination rate among both inmates and staff.
It was a dramatic surge in COVID cases in Philadelphia County jails that made City Council hold a joint hearing a few days before Christmas of the Committees on Public Health and Human Services, headed by Bass and on Public Safety, chaired by Johnson.
Prisons Commissioner Blanche Carney, who has helmed the city’s correctional facilities since 2016, was both grilled about the infection problem and faced heightened concern regarding her shelter-in -place solution. While shelter-in-place has helped reduce the infection rate dramatically, it has meant that prisoners are on lock-down 23 hours a day. “The shelter-in-place order has helped quell the outbreak of the virus in the prisons. The infection rate has dropped to 4.6% today from 21% among inmates when the order was put into effect on Dec. 5,” said Dr. Bruce Herdman, the prison department’s chief of medical operations.
“Solitary [confinement] is considered … a form of punishment,” Bass counted. “We all know that there are extreme psychological effects that result from being placed in solitary confinement. There’s got to be another way.”
This month, in response to a class action lawsuit bought on behalf of prisoners, a federal judge ruled that universal COVID-19 testing of all of the city’s 4,300 inmates as well as staff had to commence and Carney said that the results of the testing will be made public at the end of the month. Last April, Montgomery County also conducted a mass testing of all 948 inmates at the prison, SCI-Phoenix — the location of the first case of coronavirus in the Pennsylvania state prison system — and found that 18% were positive. That was a rate 30 times greater than they anticipated finding making the prison the source of one the highest infection rates in the corrections system.
Despite all the usual measures to reduce the spread of COVID in congregate settings — mask wearing, social distancing, increased sanitizing, lock downs — Wetzel reported that the numbers were increasing. An upswing he attributed to increased community spread in all 67 Pennsylvania counties, including new entrants to the prison system as well as staff.
Prisons are tailored made to facilitate a super-spreader event. Quarantining is virtually impossible with prison with open-bar cell door and dormitory style housing and social distancing is not an option with overcrowding. High-quality ventilation is also lacking. About 15 years ago researchers warned that incarcerated people would be more at risk to contract a serious infections disease because of unsafe living conditions, but the message went unheeded.
“Now, as we face COVID-19, people are not only dying while incarcerated because they have been trapped in our state prison system due to mandatory minimums and unfair sentencing practices, they are dying while incarcerated because proper measures are not being taken to ensure that COVID-19 is not spreading, infecting, and killing the incarcerated across our state,” Sen. Street railed during the state hearing.
“If we are going to end this pandemic — bring down infection rates, bring down death rates, bring down ICU occupancy rates — we have to address infection rates in correctional facilities,” said Emily Wang, professor at Yale School of Medicine and co-author of the recent National Academies report. But returning prisoners to the community is politically unpopular. More than 10,000 federal prisoners applied for compassionate release within the first three months of the pandemic but less than 2 percent of the requests were approved.
Governor Tom Wolf announced a temporary reprieve program for nonviolent and medically vulnerable prisoners back in April and estimated up to 1800 prisoners would be released to community surveillance but ultimately soured on the program after 159 releases because reprieve gives inmates no credit for their time served. In November, New Jersey released over 2,000 prisoners after an eight-month legislative battle over funding. The inmate population in Philadelphia prisons has dropped 22% from its pre-pandemic baseline.
“One preventable death is enough, and there have been 72 (in the Pennsylvania prison system),” Clair Shubrick-Richards, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society said at the Harrisburg hearing.-30-
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