CENTRAL PENNSYLVANIA (WTAJ)–Wednesday, The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) reported that two male inmates, both at SCI Phoenix (in Southeastern PA) have tested positive for Covid-19.
WTAJ was told that both males were not new inmates. Officials are still working to determine how the virus spread to the prison. They report that one of the inmates had met with a visitor within the last month (before new coronavirus concerns stopped such visits; we’re told potential exposure would’ve been through a window).
The DOC also reported that four prison staff, from unnamed prisons, have also tested positive for the coronavirus.
Wednesday, Jonathan Wetzel, PA’s Secretary of Corrections, hosted a phone conference with members of the media to give an update on how the DOC plans to stop the coronavirus from spreading to state prisons.
Wetzel said the DOC is limiting both staff and prisoner transfers, and has established a location for inmates who made need to be quarantined.
He added that inmates are being tested for Covid-19, and that everyday prison staff are being screened for the virus before entering prison grounds. All staff are also wearing masks, a practice that began two weeks ago.
How else is the PA DOC looking to stop the spread of Covid-19?
The DOC’s goal is to have fewer prison inmates, in hopes of preventing the spread of the virus. They are currently looking at each prisoner who is serving beyond their minimum sentence, to determine if they are qualified to be released. If so, the DOC is trying to prioritize these release hearings for specific inmates.
In doing this, the DOC said they will maintain the integrity of the re-entry program, which includes looking to provide proper healthcare screening and housing for the newly released inmates.
Another group of inmates being targeted for release are those who’ve violated their parole–meaning they’re in prison without a new charge. Wetzel said these inmates (totaling 94 across PA) could be released as long as the nature of the violation was not violent.
To date, Wetzel said the DOC’s already released 88 inmates who are on parole. He added there are about 400 more who could also be let out.
A third group the DOC is considering releasing from prison are inmates who are nearing their release date. Wetzel said they are currently “exploring a mechanism” for arranging their release.
Why are prisoner releases currently slower than usual?
Wetzel said the State Parole board is currently missing three members. He is working with PA officials to try and get new members to help speed up the release process.
Wetzel said having a full parole board could help expedite 150 more releases that are currently held up.
Why does the DOC feel inmate numbers will stay low?
Wetzel said with county courts currently closed, less prisoners are being admitted. Therefore, he reasons that if they continue their current release rate (they average 1,400 prisoner releases a month) the overall number of inmates will continue to be reduced.
In March, 2020, state prison populations (from all state prisons) were reduced by 574 inmates.
What measures is the DOC looking to take in Central PA?
WTAJ asked Wetzel this question. Below is his response.
“In Central PA, the areas you’re concerned about are older facilities with big housing units, with hundreds of people there. You want to reduce the number per housing unit… so some of those older housing units in Central PA will be targets as our population drops, to reduce the population on those specific housing units,” Wetzel said.
He added that there’s not much concern for Covid-19 to spread from the prison system as prisoner and staff transfers have been limited.
Wetzel said of the approximately 44,500 inmates currently in PA State Prisons, about 12,000 are classified as vulnerable for Covid-19.
There are many other details about how the DOC plans to handle the process of releasing mass quantities of inmates… and where they are looking to put prisoners who need to be quarantine.
An audio recording of the complete 35 minute briefing from Wetzel is posted below.