Sec. Wetzel gives update on prison mitigation efforts, reprieves


Prison interior

4/15/20 3:30 P.M. UPDATE: According to the DOC website, there are two confirmed employee cases of COVID-19 within state prisons in our viewing area. These cases were identified at SCI Rockview and SCI Smithfield.

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WTAJ) — John Wetzel, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, said in a conference call Wednesday the number of cases at SCI Phoenix has increased from 14 to 17 inmates that tested positive for the coronavirus.

Wetzel says four of those cases are living in halfway houses. SCI Phoenix is the only prison housing inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19. 24 employees in the PA prison system have tested positive for the virus.

When asked about the mitigation efforts used in their prisons, Wetzel says changes were implemented early on at the prisons for workers and inmates to try and limit the spread of COVID-19. Those changes included:

  • Limiting inmates time out of their cell
  • Limiting visitors/screening everyone coming into the building
  • Early adopters of masking personnel

Wetzel says the initial projections could have gone several different directions. In one projection, if the coronavirus spread as it has in communities across the United States, SCI Phoenix would have at least 59 cases. If the virus spread as it did in Rikers Island, New York, SCI Phoenix could have seen as many as 2,200 cases by now.

There are currently 300 employees awaiting test results or under 14-day quarantine according to Wetzel and the Department of Corrections. Wetzel also stressed says it is “critical that all facilities put masks on.”

Wetzel also announced Wednesday that eight inmates were released from their respective prisons across the state apart of Governor Wolf’s order to reprieve certain inmates. Wetzel still projects that between 1,500 to 1,800 inmates are expected to be released.

According to a release from the Governors office, factors determining which inmates will receive a reprieve are based off the remaining sentence and those who are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

Inmates who are being reprieved are being asked a series of questions and having their temperatures checked as they are leaving the prisons. Wetzel says if the inmate tests negative, they are free to go, but if they test positive, the inmates will be kept until they finish their recovery, then will be released.

Inmates will also receive two masks as they leave for halfway houses. Wetzel added the halfway homes are well-equipped to handle positive cases, and that there are 5 halfway houses currently under quarantine.

Details of the reprieve plan are still being figured out according to Wetzel. He says the Department of Corrections is preparing for inmates to return to prison for continue serving their sentences when the reprieve is up.

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