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COVID-19 outbreak infects more than half of inmates at Pa. prison for elderly and infirm

Eight men at State Correctional Institution Laurel Highlands died in November. But the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections says its mitigation plan is working.

An inmate at State Correctional Institution Graterford in 2017.
An inmate at State Correctional Institution Graterford in 2017.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / File Photograph

The State Correctional Institution Laurel Highlands, housed in a former state psychiatric hospital, is part prison, part long-term-care facility for many of the oldest and sickest men in Pennsylvania’s prisons. Now, it’s the epicenter of a COVID-19 outbreak tearing across the state prison system.

In the last month, 444 prisoners at Laurel Highlands — more than half its population — have tested positive. That’s in addition to 49 confirmed cases among staff. Eight men incarcerated there have died of COVID-19 just since mid-November.

A spokesperson for the state Department of Corrections said the prison’s mitigation plan is working, and the death rate is a fraction of what’s befallen those in long-term care facilities in Pennsylvania. By the DOC’s count, the majority of Laurel Highlands prisoners have recovered, while 116 are still sick.

“The DOC takes COVID-19 very seriously and has a comprehensive plan to mitigate its impact on our system,” the spokesperson, Maria Bivens, said.

But observers called the outbreak at Laurel Highlands a worst-case scenario.

“Laurel Highlands is the medical facility for the DOC, housing the heart and lung machines, the dialysis machines,” said John Hargreaves, who oversees monitoring for the nonprofit Pennsylvania Prison Society, though those in-person visits have been on hold since March. “As you stroll through the prison you see all these wheelchairs, and a lot of inmates are what are called pushers. Their job is to push inmates in wheelchairs.”

Compared with other state systems, where thousands have become sick, Pennsylvania case numbers have held relatively low. The DOC’s response plan, which included canceling visits, locking down prisons, and permitting inmates out only in limited cohorts, had been held up as a national model. Yet, many of the larger prison outbreaks around the country were revealed only when widespread testing was conducted. Pennsylvania administrators, in contrast, have mostly refused mass testing.

Now, they’re contending with a fall resurgence of the virus, which has infiltrated every state prison, killing 35 prisoners and two staff members.

Laurel Highlands was the first and only prison where universal testing has been conducted, in response to wastewater monitoring that indicated significant spread of the virus. The DOC also sought to reduce the population there in recent months to mitigate the risk; it’s now at just over 70% of capacity.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania state prisons battle a 'full-blown resurgence' of COVID-19

Five miles away, at State Correctional Institution Somerset, 220 prisoners — about 10% of the population — and 59 staff have been confirmed COVID-19 positive. However, the DOC has declined to conduct universal testing there, even on some cell blocks where there have been confirmed COVID cases. The correctional officers’ union and prisoners alike have raised concerns about the situation there.

John Eckenrode, vice president of the Pennsylvania State Correctional Officers Association, said his workers have been alarmed that Somerset has not moved to reduce the size of prisoner cohorts given the infection numbers. He worries staff are being encouraged to return to work before they’re healthy, while transmission among inmates is allowed to continue undetected.

Those who have loved ones at the two Somerset County prisons have watched the state’s COVID-19 data portal with alarm, as communication from inside has become sporadic.

Amber Williams, 27, of North Philadelphia, said her husband’s cell block is on a two-week quarantine due to a number of COVID-19 cases there. He may leave his cell every other day for 45 minutes — which, after waiting his turn, may be enough time for a shower or a phone call, but not always both. He hasn’t been tested for the coronavirus, she said.

“My husband has had the same mask since this started,” she said. “He has to constantly wash it, but they only do laundry certain times of the week. When it is being washed, he has to refrain from coming out of his cell to use the phone or shower.”

He’s only six months short of parole eligibility. Amid the lockdown, he feels hopeless. “He’s very depressed,” she said. “He barely eats.”

Responses to Prison Society surveys from Laurel Highlands suggested a grim climate among prisoners who had not left their cell blocks, breathed fresh air, attended religious services, or visited a library in 250 days.

“It appears that many people have given up on hopes and dreams of the future and seem to just be going through the motions of basic survival, moving about as do the walking dead,” one man wrote in an October survey. “Many actually hope that they contract the virus and die so that they can escape these walls.”

Since the start of the pandemic, public health experts have warned of the heightened risk in crowded, congregate settings, urging states to empty as many cells as possible. In March, Pennsylvania prison administrators said they would need to cut the population by about 12,000 people to mitigate the spread.

Gov. Tom Wolf responded by creating a reprieve program to release nonviolent prisoners nearing the end of their sentences — but it was so narrowly constructed that only about 150 people qualified. Overall, Pennsylvania has reduced its incarcerated population by about 5,000 people, or 11%, since the start of the pandemic, mostly by furloughing parolees and expediting parole releases.

» READ MORE: Why almost no one qualifies for compassionate release in Pennsylvania

In contrast, New Jersey cut its prison roster by about 35%, in part through legislative action.

Rachel Lopez, a Drexel University law professor who authored a report in June forecasting a deadly case surge in Pennsylvania prisons, said the situation underscores the need for medical parole or reform of the state’s compassionate release system.

The DOC houses some 10,000 prisoners over age 50, most with some medical needs. More than 400 are in long-term care units.

“We know that the virus spreads like wildfire behind bars,” Lopez said. “And Pennsylvania is particularly susceptible because we choose to incarcerate a lot of vulnerable and elderly people with our draconian sentencing policies.”