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Latest outbreak in a Pennsylvania prison infected more than a thousand, killing 9

More than 900 men have COVID-19, and nine have died, as Dallas becomes the latest epicenter of the pandemic that’s raged through Pennsylvania state prisons this fall and winter.

Elderly inmates listen during an information session about the commutation process at State Correctional Institution Dallas, in a 2019 file photograph.
Elderly inmates listen during an information session about the commutation process at State Correctional Institution Dallas, in a 2019 file photograph.Read moreTim Tai / File Photograph

Approximately 900 men at the State Correctional Institution Dallas now have COVID-19, a Pennsylvania Department of Corrections spokesperson said this week. An additional 259 have recovered and nine have died in the last few months, making for one of the largest and deadliest coronavirus outbreaks in the state prison system — which has confirmed 6,499 cases among prisoners and 2,436 among staff, even without universal testing, since the pandemic began.

People locked up in the Luzerne County prison, which houses 1,700 men, said the coronavirus had penetrated virtually every cell block, spilling over at times into a makeshift field hospital in the gym and onto the restricted-housing unit, which is normally used for punitive isolation.

The spokesperson said Dallas responded appropriately, with widespread testing and sanitization, a 22% population reduction, and measures to ensure social distancing. Prisoners who have COVID-19 are now able to remain on their cell blocks, she said. “Certain housing units have been deemed ‘[COVID-]positive’ and ‘negative’ housing units. Dallas has gone through great efforts to ensure that everyone is being housed accordingly.”

Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center, one of many advocacy groups that have urged greater cuts to the state prison population, said this outbreak was predictable.

“One concern I would have for SCI Dallas being at greater risk for a high prevalence of COVID-19 transmission is the age of the facility and some of the architectural features. They have bars on the windows [instead of glass],” he said. Dallas was built in 1960 as a juvenile detention hall, and predates the trend away from long cell blocks to smaller, freestanding pods.

But he also noted that Dallas is one of a handful of state prisons in Pennsylvania where all inmates have been tested. “Everywhere you do mass testing, you’re not coming up with those numbers necessarily, but you’re still finding hundreds of cases that were going undetected,” he said.

In a memo to all prisoners earlier in December, Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel pledged aggressive mitigation efforts system-wide: “The DOC has always taken the safety of our population seriously, and our ability to react quickly has helped keep you all safe.” Pennsylvania’s reported COVID-19 case rate remains better than many other state prison systems, though some states with higher rates have conducted far more extensive testing.

Several men at Dallas said they believed staff failure to wear masks and quickly isolate positive cases had worsened the outbreak.

Thomas Greene, 51, said he began reporting COVID-19 symptoms, including cough, fever, and a loss of smell and taste, starting in October. It was several days before he was isolated from other prisoners, he said.

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

Once he was isolated, it was in a unit normally used as punishment: the restricted-housing unit, reviled as “the hole.” Greene described it as psychological torture, exposed to round-the-clock noise and fluorescent light, and denied access to his belongings — even his reading glasses.

“This choice for isolation resulted in many men who are sick not reporting it,” he warned, allowing COVID to spread undetected and some to grow extremely ill before receiving treatment.

Another man, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, said that as a result of the outbreak, prisoners — previously allotted 45 minutes out of cell each day — are now out only for 10 or 15 minutes at a time. Some days, he said, they’re not let out at all. “We are not bringing the virus into the institutions. But we are the ones who are dually punished,” he wrote.

Their concerns are echoed by those at other institutions around the state that have seen large outbreaks, and ever-extending lockdowns. Some reported having only one mask since the pandemic began. Others said they’re improvising masks out of T-shirts.

At State Correctional Institution Laurel Highlands, where many elderly prisoners and those required skilled nursing care are housed, at least 444 men contracted the coronavirus in the last few months. Nine died. Keith Falls of Delaware County told his wife, Elyssa Falls, that the “pill lines” seemed one likely vector, as those from his block and people on COVID-positive blocks all converged on the same site to retrieve their medications. He said, too, that correctional officers with known exposure were allowed to return to work without testing.

The Department of Corrections has declined to require staff be tested. According to the DOC’s public-facing dashboard, an imperfect data source, of those workers who have been tested, about 2,500 have been infected and two have died since March. Currently, 44 staff at Dallas are sick, and 246 have recovered, according to a spokesperson.

» READ MORE: COVID-19 outbreak at Philly jails panics staff and prisoners ‘in the eye of the storm’

At SCI Somerset, which saw about 600 confirmed cases in the last two months, Colin Best said he only became aware of an outbreak days after tests were conducted on his unit. Out of 197 men, 148 were positive, he said. It took a few more days before they were isolated, he said.

He said there’s a powerful disincentive to report any illness: “You do not want to be responsible for being the person that caused your unit to be locked down for two weeks.”

Once COVID-19 was on the unit, which includes 26-man dormitories and shared phones and bathrooms, mitigation was minimal, he said. After he tested positive, he still had to walk past seven cells housing COVID-negative people to reach the bathroom.

“For the inmates that were positive, we were not able to call our family ... or send messages to let them know that we were OK,” he added.

In some COVID-19 cases, family members have said they were not informed of a loved one’s hospitalization or even death.

On another unit at Somerset, Jermaine Palmer was alarmed when random testing revealed 46 cases in that section of the prison. “Tags are placed on cell doors to indicate 14-day isolation,” said Palmer, who did not receive a positive test, and other COVID-positive prisoners were brought onto the unit, too.

After that, he said, he wasn’t sure how to protect himself. “If COVID teaches us anything, it is that none of us is isolated. We are inextricably connected; and the quality of our own lives depends on the degree of our consideration for the next person’s.”