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Inside Pennsylvania’s prison outbreak, where catching COVID-19 can land you in ‘the hole’

"We were not aware of any outbreak until they started sending staff home. One of the unit managers was in the hospital on life support."

A file photo of Camp Hill, a Pennsylvania state prison.
A file photo of Camp Hill, a Pennsylvania state prison.Read moreCarolyn Kaster / AP File

As Pennsylvanians learned of Gov. Tom Wolf’s order shutting down indoor dining, gyms, and theaters effective Dec. 12 to stop the spread of the coronavirus, the state’s prison inmates got news of a parallel, but more restrictive, order by Corrections Secretary John Wetzel. The state’s prisons, which were already on highly restricted movement, are back on total “lockdown” due to a resurgence of COVID-19. That means no more than 40 minutes per day out of cell for a shower and a phone call.

That plan helped keep case counts low in the spring — but now, the virus is far more prevalent, infecting at least 3,000 prisoners and 1,000 staff just since November. All told, close to 7,000 people have tested positive, and 42 died.

Wetzel, in a statement issued Friday, expressed confidence in the mitigation efforts, along with a pending reorganization of the state prison system announced in December. “We look at this as a time of cleaning, healing and strengthening our system,” he said. Under that plan, all new admissions will be tested four times over three weeks before being released from quarantine. He has not publicly proposed requiring staff to undergo any tests.

Many prisoners are feeling less optimistic. These are dispatches from the heart of this outbreak, including State Correctional Institution Cambridge Springs in northwestern Pennsylvania, where mass testing in December revealed 400 new cases; and SCI Dallas in Luzerne County, where more than 300 prisoners have been infected and six died. Their messages are edited for length and clarity.

Thomas Greene, age 51, SCI Dallas

Dec. 9: The Superintendent just gave the latest numbers: 230+ prisoners have tested positive with six deaths; 160+ staff tested positive. Almost all within the last two months. As of today they are starting to test all prisoners (instant and a regular test). Those positive will be separated from those who aren’t. Most staff don’t follow the quarantine protocols, so no matter what is done, it will be almost impossible to stop the virus from spreading in here.

In October I was housed in medical after a hiatal hernia surgery. That’s where the first positive prisoner cases happened. Everyone housed in that area was tested. I was negative. Over the next two weeks a couple of us had symptoms: I had a few temps around 101 degrees, loss of smell and taste for at least a week, a cough, and I was freezing. All symptoms reported to medical staff. The doctor said I was probably a false negative, yet I was not isolated from the others. Two days after I was released from medical I was given the second test and taken to the Restricted Housing Unit (the hole) for isolation. It was psychological torture. Many TVs being blasted on different channels 24-7 and music being played through the vent. Lights being on 24-7.

I haven’t been in the RHU for over 13 years for committing any rule violations, and it is a place I should not have been placed for isolation pending test results. This choice for isolation resulted in many men who are sick not reporting it. Or they wait until it is really bad before they report it. Several men on my block have left in bad shape, resulting in more harm to them.

Tyreem Rivers, 43, SCI Dallas

Dec. 3: I haven’t really been feeling too good lately, and part of me thinks that I had a simple winter cold. Another part of me feels like the worst has come near and that I could have COVID. I have no sense of smell or taste right now. Men on my unit have been testing positive every day since Thanksgiving. A friend was rushed to the hospital Saturday for flu-like sickness.

Dec. 9: Prior to today people were only being tested if they requested a test, or if they showed severe signs of COVID. Now, there is mass testing. I’ll be expected to take my test Friday. My entire block is on quarantine right now and we’re basically confined to our cells. On enhanced quarantine, I might get 30 minutes out the cell. Not going to lie though, with the level of severe contagion, I’d rather be in my cell (which I can personally sanitize) and feel a little more safe in for time being. In all my 24 years of incarceration, I’ve never witnessed a darker time in prison

David Lee, 57, SCI Coal Township

Dec. 10: We are getting out for 50 minutes a day, and a couple of times a week we come out for yard for about 50 minutes at a time. This is a very painful situation because being locked in a cell/cage for such long periods of time is deeply traumatizing. We are suffering mentally, spiritually, and physically. We have been told that this lockdown is not a punishment. We are told that we must do the impossible and socially distance from each other, but the staff are not even attempting to socially distance from each other, and they are the people who can bring the virus in to us. Many of the staff are now attempting to blame the uptick in the virus on parole violators. We are just trying our best to hold on, because we have never experienced anything remotely close to this type of lockdown. You have many disgruntled staff members saying silly things because they are also traumatized. Incarcerated human beings (IHBs) are easy targets to purge their frustrations. This is pure agony!

Aaron Fox, 76, SCI Frackville

Dec. 5: Rumor has it someone tested positive on their way home. The block was put on quarantine. About three days in quarantine they came and got the cellmate of the person reported to have tested positive. The next known case was my neighbor. Since I’m in the vulnerable group, I figured it best I get tested. I come up hot. They take me and four more people off the block and place us in an isolation unit in the back of the dispensary. Medical took vital signs four times a day. There was no mental health nor social services.

On day nine, three of us were moved to what is called the step-down phase, indicating our vital signs have been stable. This area is the hole. I was put in a cell with a gentleman 68 years old and told I had to get on the top bunk. I spent the night sleeping on the floor. The unit manager straightened it out the next day.

Dec. 6: Sunday without football is a Tuesday. There is no power for appliances, and no kiosk. The hole is a culture. You’re subject to lose your mind, life, or both at any moment. There is no accountability, responsibility, nor oversight. The culture of the hole is hostile, antagonistic, and volatile. It exists at a heightened state of anxiety, and is adversarial by nature. COVID don’t make the hole a hospital!

Dec. 7: Last night I was moved back to the area behind the dispensary. That’s a blessing! I hope I never do that again. I was only in the hole four days. It was traumatic. I was getting flashbacks: I felt that old hole mindset coming on. Extreme survival where everything takes place on the edges, there’s no middle. I thought about a close friend who was next door to me in the hole one time who blew his mind. There was nothing I could do to stop it and couldn’t bring him back. It was like being on shore not being able to swim, watching a loved one drown.

Marsha Scaggs, 56, SCI Cambridge Springs

Dec. 10: We were not aware of any outbreak until they started sending staff home. One of the unit managers was in the hospital on life support, fighting for her life due to COVID-19. A lot of us put in sick call slips thinking we had sinus infection. We weren’t even seen.

The only thing we were told is to pack up because we were moving to another unit. The next day, Dec. 4, we were all tested for COVID, and a lot of us tested positive. After that we were moved yet again. I am in a room with five other people, and there is no distancing. We are not getting the chance to let our bodies heal. Now they are talking about moving us again. We are only out of our cell to use the phone, kiosk, bathroom, and showers. We are being treated like we brought this virus in here, when in fact there are a lot of us who haven’t been on the outside in decades. I understand that we are inmates and that we all made some horrible decisions, but at the end of the day we are still humans who need to be treated as such.