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Philly reports first inmate death from coronavirus in its jails

Sources who were not authorized to publicly discuss the death identified the inmate as Yvonne Harris, who had been housed at the Riverside Correctional Facility on State Road since September 2018. She died in an area hospital.

The Riverside Correctional Facility in Northeast Philadelphia.
The Riverside Correctional Facility in Northeast Philadelphia.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

A 48-year-old woman on Tuesday became the first Philadelphia jail inmate to die of complications from the coronavirus, city officials said.

The Department of Prisons did not release the woman’s identity, say which facility she had been housed in, or describe the charges on which she was being held.

Sources who were not authorized to publicly discuss the woman’s death identified her as Yvonne Harris, who had been housed at the Riverside Correctional Facility on State Road since September 2018 on charges of robbery, trespassing, and possessing an instrument of a crime.

Harris received an 11½-to-23-month jail sentence after pleading guilty to those charges in July 2019. She would have been eligible for release in August, court records show.

The sources said she fell ill as the coronavirus rapidly made its way through the jail, and she was rushed to a hospital last week. In a news release announcing her death, the city noted that the woman had underlying medical conditions but did not specify what they were.

"Any death is tragic,” Mayor Jim Kenney said at a news briefing Tuesday. “I want to remind everyone that incarcerated men and women are human beings. They are someone’s family member and friend and we owe them the dignity of acknowledging their life and their passing."

The death comes as city and state officials ramp up efforts to reduce their inmate populations to curb the spread of the disease behind bars and a day after the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections announced the first coronavirus-related death in the state prison system: a 67-year-old man who had been incarcerated at SCI Phoenix in Montgomery County.

Gov. Tom Wolf unveiled a process Friday that could temporarily release up to 1,800 nonviolent offenders from state prison to home confinement starting this week. Meanwhile, judges, prosecutors and public defenders in Philadelphia have been fast-tracking reviews of inmates charged with minor crimes or held on minimal bail for possible release from the city’s jails, which unlike prisons house mostly pretrial defendants.

Harris’ conviction for a violent crime would have made her ineligible for the early release review, prison officials said. Court records also indicate that at the time of her 2019 guilty plea, she had been on probation for a drug-related conviction a year earlier.

“This was an approximately 48-year-old woman who clearly had been suffering from addiction for a long time,” District Attorney Larry Krasner said. Her "sentence was not death.”

Kenney said Tuesday that the city’s courts, working in conjunction with lawyers, have managed to decrease the jail system’s inmate population by about 13% over the last month. As of Tuesday morning, the population stood at 4,085 inmates, according to Department of Prisons records.

Of those, 54 are infected with the coronavirus, including three who have been hospitalized, city officials said. An additional 13 inmates have recovered from the illness.

The city has refused to release a breakdown of how many inmates are ill at each of its four jail facilities or identify how many corrections officers have tested positive for the virus, citing privacy concerns.