A spike in coronavirus cases at a state correctional facility outside of Harrisburg has created a ripple effect across Pennsylvania, leaving county jails temporarily unable to transfer inmates bound for cells in larger state prisons.
In the southeastern corner of the commonwealth, that change in policy at SCI Camp Hill has caused some overcrowding in county jails that have worked to reduce their inmate populations in this time of social distancing. Officials at most say the impact is minor, but Bucks County officials say the pileup in their jail is limiting space that would otherwise be used to keep county inmates safe.
Bucks County Commissioner Diane Ellis-Marseglia said inmates at the county jail awaiting transfer to state prison are regularly tested for the coronavirus, and put into quarantine if they show signs of COVID-19.
“They won’t be bringing anything into the state system," she said. "But they’re taking up space that doesn’t allow us to put, say, one person in a cell to prevent COVID from coming into our jail.”
Advocates working with inmates and their families, meanwhile, say the situation makes the case for further release of nonviolent inmates from county jails during the current public health crisis.
SCI Camp Hill has been in a COVID-19-related lockdown since Sept. 15, according to Maria Finn, a spokesperson for the state Department of Corrections. Currently, 29 inmates have tested positive for the virus, as have 11 staff members, according to data from the department.
The lockdown has disrupted normal functions at the 3,770-bed facility, which primarily serves as an intake site for all male inmates entering the state prison system: After sentencing at the county level, they all pass through Camp Hill, where they receive their permanent placement.
“It is the DOC’s responsibility to protect our staff and inmates coming and going throughout the prison system,” Finn said in a statement. “Because of the COVID positives at SCI Camp Hill, Secretary [John] Wetzel has made the decision to put a hold on all county inmate transfers for a few weeks.”
The shutdown comes at a time when county courts are slowly reopening after months of closure, with criminal proceedings slowly resuming. But, so far, that gradual pace has not led to significant issues in the region.
Officials in Delaware, Montgomery, and Chester Counties said this week that the suspension of transfers has resulted in their jails retaining a few dozen inmates who normally would be heading to state prison: 40 in Delaware County; 28 in Montgomery; and 33 in Chester.
(Officials in Philadelphia, which operates four city jails, did not immediately provide inmate data.)
“We’re working around these issues as much as they are at the state level,” said Sean McGee, the deputy warden of the Montgomery County Correctional Facility. With a current population of 860, the county’s jail is about 1,200 inmates below its capacity thanks to agreements with county prosecutors and “cooperation with the courts,” McGee said.
But in Bucks County, Commissioner Ellis-Marseglia says that even with mandates to reduce the county jail’s standing population to allow for social distancing and quarantining, the facility has 719 out of 847 beds filled.
Of those inmates, 41 are awaiting transfer to state prison.
Elis-Marseglia said inmates from Bucks County don’t present any risks for those at SCI Camp Hill. And she argues that the state facility has more space and capability to quarantine arriving inmates.
“Since the pandemic began, we haven’t been able to transport anyone with COVID,” she said. “We are sending people who are safe for them to admit. This situation could get worse if COVID gets worse, and that’s one of the reasons that this needs to get cleared up now.”
It’s an issue that has drawn the attention of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, a nonprofit based in Philadelphia that monitors issues at the state’s correctional facilities and advocates for inmates and their families.
Claire Shubik-Richards, the society’s executive director, said this week that the recent spike of positive cases underscores why prisons need to reduce their populations, especially nonviolent offenders near the end of their sentences, or people incarcerated for parole violations. People who she said face a greater health risk by being locked up during the pandemic, in an environment where the virus can spread rapidly.
Additionally, she said there are a number of preventative measures that counties, and the state, should be taking to avoid these lockdowns, including rapid testing for inmates and staff.
“What makes these lockdowns worse now, especially this late in the pandemic," she said, “is that the inmates know the staff are the ones bringing this in, but they’re paying the costs.”