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With 13,000 infected, 100 dead of COVID-19 in Pa. prisons, advocates urge faster releases

“It’s almost like people have become numb to the fact that this is a crisis.” Prisoners and their families say the parole and clemency process has left many unnecessarily vulnerable to COVID-19.

Elyssa Falls of Collingdale has been raising her four young children alone while her husband, in state prison for driving while intoxicated, has seen his parole date delayed for over a year.
Elyssa Falls of Collingdale has been raising her four young children alone while her husband, in state prison for driving while intoxicated, has seen his parole date delayed for over a year.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

A mother of four from Collingdale, just outside Philadelphia in Delaware County, Elyssa Falls has trudged dutifully through the pandemic, home-schooling her 10-, 7-, and 5-year-old kids while entertaining her toddler.

What’s hardest to handle, however, is a slowdown in the parole process that’s kept her husband, Keith Falls, in state prison with no clear timeline for returning home.

Keith, who has struggled with addiction, was arrested for a third-offense DUI in September 2019. Because that was a parole violation for the previous DUI, he was returned to state prison for a six-month “hit.” After that, he was told, he’d be given a parole interview, so the violation could be resolved and he could begin serving his sentence for the 2019 offense. But after a year and a half in prison, that interview still has not taken place, Elyssa Falls said.

“I have written letters saying, ‘I don’t understand. He got a six-month hit, but he’s well past his six months.’ Everything is backed up. It’s a mess,” Falls said. “We understood he would have to do time for violating parole, but that time has well past come and gone.”

In the interim, her husband caught COVID-19, along with more than half of those incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution Laurel Highlands, where 11 have died.

Altogether, 96 state prisoners and four staff have died after contracting COVID-19, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. There have been at least 13,000 confirmed cases in the state prisons — 3,895 among staff and 9,431 among incarcerated people — an infection rate more than three times higher than in Pennsylvania as a whole.

At the same time, advocates say officials are not acting with requisite urgency to reduce the prison population, which state leaders agree is central to mitigating the spread of the virus.

About 700 fewer people were paroled or re-paroled from April through December of 2020 compared with the same period in 2019, official statistics show. A reprieve process introduced by Gov. Tom Wolf in April resulted in only around 160 releases, out of a prison population of around 40,000. Legislation advancing medical parole has stalled. Meanwhile, the state’s historically slow commutation process, the only release valve for life-sentenced prisoners, remains sluggish. Thirteen people recommended for clemency are now awaiting Wolf’s signature, while one man in the queue, Bruce Norris, died last week after contracting COVID-19 in prison.

» READ MORE: Commutation in sight, Pa. lifer Bruce Norris died of COVID-19 awaiting governor’s approval

“Everything is just moving at a snail’s pace,” said Claire Shubik-Richards, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, who has received many complaints about delays in every facet of the system. “It’s just a bureaucratic morass, causing these deaths, causing these infections, and causing these outbreaks.”

A Parole Board spokesperson said that parole interviews have proceeded as normal throughout the pandemic, and any decline in the number of people paroled could be traced to a decline in the parole-eligible prison population. The board has adapted to COVID-19-related challenges, like quarantines that prevent prisoners from attending parole interviews, by creating more flexible, rolling interview schedules, the spokesperson said.

Bret Bucklen, who oversees statistics for the Department of Corrections, added in an emailed statement: “I estimate that 90 percent or higher of all parole-eligible incarcerated individuals are being interviewed at or before their [parole eligibility] date. Most are interviewed months before their [minimum] date, and this hasn’t changed and has even improved.”

Pennsylvania state prisons, which went into lockdown in March, weathered the first wave of the pandemic with relatively few cases of COVID-19. But the virus spread rapidly through the fall and winter at institutions around the state. Additional cases may have gone undetected, as staff are not required to be tested, and universal testing of prisoners has been limited to certain facilities or cell blocks.

As of Monday, Forest County in rural Western Pennsylvania ranked among the nation’s top 10 coronavirus hot spots. That can be largely attributed to the DOC’s latest outbreak, at State Correctional Institution Forest, where 940 prisoners and 135 staff caught the virus, according to the COVID Prison Project. (The Department of Corrections removed its own public-facing dashboard after complaints about data inconsistencies).

» READ MORE: Confronted with significant flaws in coronavirus data, Pa. corrections officials concede ‘it’s unacceptable’

Robert Pezzeca, a prisoner at SCI Forest, said some with COVID-19 symptoms were failing to report it for fear of triggering even stricter lockdowns. “It’s been almost a year of being locked in a cell 23+ hours per day,” he said in an email in January.

A few days later, he followed up to say he had tested positive for the virus.

“I cannot lay on my back or chest, feels like my lungs are collapsing,” he wrote.

As of Jan. 29, more than 800 DOC staff were out on COVID-19-related leave. John Eckenrode, president of the Pennsylvania State Correctional Officers Association, said he was urging the Department of Corrections to cease prisoner transfers and to seek vaccines for prison staff as soon as possible. He posited that the virus had largely “burned itself out” for the moment. But without action, he said, “we’ll be back in the same boat we were before.”

Since the start of the pandemic, the state prison population has declined by 14%. But Shubik-Richards said much of that decline can be linked to fewer admissions, as the pandemic forced courts to shut down.

» READ MORE: Coronavirus death counts exceed one per day in Pa. prisons. Gov. Wolf needs to use all the tools he has. | Editorial

Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel, in a hearing held by state lawmakers in January, repeatedly said that Wolf was “not interested” in expanding the use of reprieves.

Meanwhile, Shubik-Richards said, some people have been stuck in county jails for weeks awaiting transport to state prison, just so they could be assessed for early-release programs.

“It’s almost like people have become numb to the fact that this is a crisis,” she said.

Other prisoners, like Falls, had their parole interviews canceled or delayed because lockdowns had prevented them from completing required programming.

Falls, who worked building and maintaining cell towers, was the sole breadwinner before his arrest. Now, his wife is getting with by part-time work, help from family, and support from First Baptist Church of Collingdale, which is providing housing.

“I’m a pretty strong person. But lately the not knowing and the timing of things has just been really rough,” she said.

Meanwhile, for some elderly prisoners serving life sentences, hope that the Board of Pardons could offer a route home amid the pandemic has faded. Wolf has not approved a lifer for commutation since June 2020, and 13 men and women who were recommended by the board last year are still awaiting approval. A spokesperson said in a statement that Wolf’s staff was unable to expedite the review process without additional resources.

Francisco Mojica, who received the board’s recommendation in September 2020 after 29 years in prison, said Norris’ death while awaiting Wolf’s approval had shaken him.

“I am beginning to get afraid that I might also eventually get the virus and die before the governor has the chance to sign my paperwork,” he said. “I can’t help but think that I made it this far and this long in here, only to have it all slip away.”