Pennsylvania relaxes prison pandemic restrictions as funding challenges loom

Pennsylvania relaxes prison pandemic restrictions as funding challenges loomThe SCI-Huntingdon prison in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

(The Center Square) – Pennsylvania officials said the state will begin lifting pandemic restrictions in some corrections facilities on Tuesday, but questions remain about how the department will afford the new normal. 

As the spread of COVID-19 slows through the state’s prison system, Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said that facilities will still take precautions – like universal masking, serving food inside cells and keeping gyms and personal care services closed – but can’t stay on lockdown forever. 

“While we may never return to pre-COVID operations, we do expect to return to near normal operations that includes social distancing and continued monitoring of staff and inmates for symptoms,” he said. “We believe in acting quickly and aggressively when responding to this virus, while affording more out-of-cell time and allowing inmates to return to work, education, programing and activities.” 

The department acted fast when public health officials detected the first case of COVID-19 inside the prison system on March 29. Since then, some 397 inmates and staff have tested positive and six of those patients have died. Statewide, the Department of Health has confirmed more than 66,000 cases and nearly 5,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19.

Prisons, jails, nursing and personal care homes have become the epicenter of COVID-19 outbreaks in many states because of the high concentration of at-risk individuals and the difficulty in adhering to social distancing. Pennsylvania’s experience has mirrored the national trend, which has seen total cases inside prisons and jails exceed 25,000. Ohio, Michigan and Tennessee have been among the hardest hit, according to Prison Fellowship.

Within days of the first positive case, Gov. Tom Wolf announced a new policy that tendered the early release of certain prisoners. To date, nearly 800 individuals have left incarceration early, many of whom were considered nonviolent and near the end of their sentences or at high risk for developing coronavirus complications. 

Early mitigation efforts from the administration also halted in-person visits and limited entry points for new inmates entering the system. Facilities began using video conferencing for visits and prisoners were relegated to their cells most of the time. 

While these actions proved successful, the Justice Action Network (JAN) said continuing certain elements of social distancing – like video visits, testing, medical care and social services – will require an infusion of federal funds as the threat of a second wave lingers and state budgets buckle under the weight of prolonged economic shutdowns. Pennsylvania’s general fund could face a deficit in excess of $4 billion, lawmakers estimate.

“We urge federal lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to put people before partisanship on public safety issues, and support justice system first responders acting in the best interests of public health and public safety,” said Holly Harris, president and executive director of JAN. “It’s a matter of life and death.”  

JAN released a report on May 15 that summarized the findings of a multi-state task force dedicated to identifying weaknesses in the criminal justice system exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. Wetzel participated in a task force working group that focused on reducing inmate populations as a first line of defense against an outbreak. 

Harris said Congress should appropriate funds in the next relief bill that help state prison systems implement policies that limit the spread while also prioritizing alternatives to incarceration, such as addiction and mental health treatment centers and workforce participation programs.

“This report is an alarm bell, ringing out from all over the country,” she said. “These justice system leaders are on the front lines of this crisis, burning the candle at both ends by rushing to address jail and prison overcrowding while continuing their work to keep communities safe. But as economies tank, state and local budgets dry up. And so do law enforcement efforts, treatment for addiction and mental illness, job training, and so many other essential public safety tools.” 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, dashed any hopes of a fifth coronavirus relief bill before June, noting that he wanted to “wait and see” how the $3 trillion in aid appropriated through the CARES Act impacted the economy.  

The $3 trillion HEROES Act – widely panned as a House Democratic wish list – dedicates $250 million for reentry programs and eliminates a provision in the Paycheck Protection Program that denies loans to small business owners with criminal records. While McConnell said much of the bill’s contents are non-starters for Senate Republicans, criminal justice funding wasn’t singled out as a contentious issue.

“Historically, criminal justice reform has required bipartisan support to get it to get to the finish line,” said Heather Rice-Minus, vice president of Government Affairs and Church Mobilization for Prison Fellowship. “We’re pleased many of Prison Fellowship’s key priorities have been included in the HEROES Act, from allowing second chance business owners access to the Paycheck Protection Program to increasing reentry funding. However, we are working hard to forge a bipartisan path that will ensure the final bill delivered to the President’s desk remembers those in prison.”

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