The coronavirus has the possibility of becoming a death penalty for the 95,000 people behind bars in Pennsylvania, which includes thousands of young people -- to say nothing of the thousands of correctional officers throughout the state. As the rest of society scrambles to alter life and maintain social distance, the state’s and counties’ departments of corrections must manage the safety of a population that can do little of either. This is a crisis in the making that could impact everyone by further taxing not just families and communities, but an already overtaxed health-care system. Keep in mind: The Pennsylvania prison system, according to a recent Spotlight PA report, has a total of four ventilators. And they are all in use.
Last weekend, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections had its first confirmed case -- an individual incarcerated at SCI Phoenix. Since then, and as of April 2, another incarcerated person and seven staffers have tested positive for COVID-19. Now the entire system is in quarantine. Since confirmed cases are a lagging indicator of transmission, that means that an explosion of cases is likely to happen soon. For example, on March 23, in Chicago’s Cook County Jail, two people tested positive. A week later, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the jail rose to 134.
Correctional facilities themselves have limited moves; overcrowded, shared facilities can’t be altered much -- unless the population is dramatically reduced. Pennsylvania’s state and county systems should not wait. It is possible to reduce populations significantly without compromising public safety. The population of Colorado’s 15 largest jails went down 31% in the effort to combat coronavirus.
About 37,000 people in Pennsylvania are incarcerated in county jails -- including roughly 4,100 in Philadelphia, of whom 20 tested positive for COVID-19 as of April 2. People incarcerated in county jails are awaiting trial or incarcerated for minor offenses and are therefore more short term and transient. According to both the District Attorney’s Office and the public defenders association, many of the people in Philadelphia’s jails can be released without harm to public safety. That should include testing of those exposed or with symptoms.
On the state level, an effort to reduce the size of the prison population has begun, but so far focused on the edges. DOC Secretary John Wetzel says he is looking at potential release of technical parole violators, those approved for parole and waiting for a release date, and nonviolent offenders who have completed their minimum sentence and are waiting for parole hearing -- about 2,000 people. That’s less than 5% of the population, which won’t dramatically change the ability to allow for social distancing inside prisons.
There are challenges. For one, not every person has a safe place to go to on short notice. Others have medical conditions that would require further treatment.
These are problems that will take time to solve. That said, given the highly contagious nature of this virus and the unique conditions of prisons, it’s fair to ask why the prison system didn’t have a comprehensive plan in place far earlier than now to address these challenges.
According to reporting by Spotlight PA, a legislative effort in Harrisburg is brewing to create a mechanism for release of inmates by categories of crime. That could be too slow or too narrow to actually contain the problem. In that case, Gov. Tom Wolf should use his reprieve power to suspend sentences and order immediate release of some inmates. In counties, judicial leadership should make courtrooms accessible to allow expediency and prosecutors, judges, and defenders should together determine which individuals can be released -- and release them immediately.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court also has a role to play. The ACLU-PA filed a petition asking the court to order counties to decrease their jail populations. In another petition, advocates for incarcerated youth asked the court to order the release of nearly 2,000 teenagers held in jails and detention centers. The juvenile justice system is supposed to be built on the aspiration for a better future for the young people who go through it. Potentially fatal illness should have no part in that.