Spotlight PA: Despite high vaccination rates among prisoners, some COVID restrictions remain in place | News, Sports, Jobs



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HARRISBURG — More than two years after the first coronavirus cases were reported in Pennsylvania state prisons, some of the mitigation measures Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration took to stem the spread of COVID-19 are still in effect.

However, with nearly 90% of those incarcerated in state prisons being vaccinated and cases falling significantly, both the inmates and their attorneys are calling on the Justice Department to reassess the restrictions that are affecting quality of life and creating additional financial hardship.

The coronavirus hit Pennsylvania state prisons in late March 2020, sending the system’s 23 prisons into quarantine. Extreme restrictions on movement kept people confined and largely uninfected during the spring. But more contagious permutations of the virus overwhelmed the strict restrictions.

Waves of infection and deaths erupted in state prisons from November 2020 to January 2021 and again the following winter.

More than two years after the pandemic began, 166 inmates and 12 law enforcement officers have died from the virus, according to the corrections authority. Since January, large waves of positive COVID-19 cases have largely subsided.

But advocates say the remaining mitigation measures have further isolated those incarcerated. Spotlight PA took a look at where the COVID-19 guidelines in state prisons stand today:

release program

Anticipating that prisons would become a COVID-19 hotspot, Gov. Tom Wolf signed an executive order in April 2020 allowing the release of non-violent inmates at higher risk of serious illness if they contract the virus. His unilateral action responded to a Republican plan that would have limited the releases to about 450.

State officials identified 1,200 people who may meet the governor’s narrow criteria, but ultimately only 159 were released between April and June 2020. Some individuals initially identified as potential candidates did not meet drug and alcohol program requirements or had a recent history of violence. Others were disqualified for not having a plan for where to stay during the pardon. Some chose to await parole rather than attend.

Of the 159 pardons granted, 61 have returned to prison for various reasons, including violating the terms of their release, and one person has died, Justice Department spokeswoman Maria Bivens said.

At a budget hearing in February, Justice Secretary George Little told lawmakers that none of the people who returned had done so for the same offense that originally landed them in prison and had committed no violent crimes during their release.

“Usually it was technical problems” he said. “For example, they were pardoned in a certain place and they weren’t in that place. If they did not report as instructed, they were brought back.”

Two people returned with mental health issues, Little added. “Frankly, they destabilized when they were in the community. We brought them back because we could care for and track them more appropriately while they were in the facilities.”

The remaining 97 people who were part of the mercy program received commutations from Wolf last year.

meals in the cell

Early in the pandemic, the Department of Corrections shifted meals from group dining rooms to in-cell delivery.

Four facilities – Cambridge Springs, Laurel Highlands, Muncy and Quehanna – have returned or are about to return for group dining. But in most state prisons, people still eat their daily meals in cells even though the number of COVID-19 cases has fallen.

In certain prisons, the elimination of three group meals a day has freed up time and space for more activities outside the cell, Bivens said.

“Every system is different and there is no one-size-fits-all solution”, Bivens wrote in an email. “That [Department of Corrections] will continue to assess best practices for each facility and adjust food delivery as appropriate.”

A March poll by the Pennsylvania Prison Society, which advocates for people in state prisons, of 429 people in 23 state prisons found that 62% of respondents would prefer to return to dining room meals. Eating in a cell eliminated the ability to walk and socialize, respondents said, and reduced the number of hot meals.

“Hot meals have been reduced to cold substitutes – grilled cheese is now a cheese sandwich; Pancakes are now a third breakfast of hard-boiled eggs.” wrote a person imprisoned in Albion. “Breakfast(s) are usually on the block by count time — over an hour before they’re served.”

In response to food complaints, the correctional facility bought insulated food trays and carts, Bivens said.

Copay lock

People in Pennsylvania prisons pay a $5 co-payment when they request medical attention for anything that isn’t an emergency or treatment for a chronic condition.

During the peak of the pandemic, the correctional facility suspended co-payments for people reporting flu-like symptoms related to COVID-19. However, implementation was patchy and proponents pushed for a full suspension, which went into effect in May 2021.

The department has since resumed charging a co-payment for elective medical needs, excluding flu-like symptoms. Calls for medical assistance increased during the suspension, leading to delays in care and more complaints about wait times, Bivens said.

But the Pennsylvania Prison Society still advocates a permanent suspension because people incarcerated in Pennsylvania make about $0.19 an hour if they have a job at all.

“The department seems to take the position that introducing a co-payment will reduce the number of false sick notes.” said Noah Barth, the prison oversight director for the Pennsylvania Prison Society. “While that may be true, it also reduces the number of legitimate patient visits.”

Personal inspection

Pennsylvania prisons suspended all in-person visits in March 2020 to reduce the number of outsiders who could potentially bring the virus into the facilities.

During the visit break, people in state prisons were able to contact friends and family via free video calls that were unavailable before the pandemic.

In-person visits resumed in May 2021, but the Corrections Department suspended them again in January following a new wave of COVID-19 outbreaks. Visits resumed in March with restrictions on days and times.

Before the pandemic, visitors could arrive at a prison without notice. Now the corrections department requires them to schedule visits at least three days in advance, Bivens said.

“This allows us to encourage social distancing in visiting rooms, maintain zonal integrity and ensure visitors have adequate time with their incarcerated loved ones.” She said. “In the past, on busy days, the duration of a visit might have been limited to allow the next group to come in.”

implemented state prisons “Zones” during the pandemic, a system called Little a “prison in prison” to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The size and number of zones varies by prison, but theoretically people can only interact with those in the same zone.

Days and times for in-person visits are now allocated by zone, which may allow less flexibility for visiting friends or family who may need to provide additional accommodations, Barth said.

“Increasingly, we’ve heard that people feel the benefits of the zone system are gone,” he said. “The pandemic is on the wane and vaccination is high. It becomes just another way to divide the populace. In some cases they are already mixing professionally across zones.”

The permanent addition of video visits has enabled family and friends to see their detained loved ones without having to travel, Bivens said.

“While we cannot guarantee that each inmate’s personal availability will seamlessly match each visitor’s schedules, we believe the scheduling system protects the health and safety of visitors, staff and the inmate population.” She said.

vaccinations

The Wolf administration offered people in prisons an incentive to get vaccinated: a $25 commission credit, a significant amount that equated to more than 130 hours of prison job work and cost $0.19 an hour.

Wolf also ordered vaccination against or testing for COVID-19 for state employees working in congregation settings, including prisons. In response, the union that represents most of Pennsylvania’s state prison guards sued the state in September, but the Commonwealth Court dismissed the lawsuit in October.

Various prisons have incentivized staff to be vaccinated, but uptake among prison officials is low, according to figures reported to the Corrections Authority itself.

“We hope that all employees will choose to be vaccinated to protect themselves, their colleagues and families, and our inmates.” said Bivens. “Secretary Little has emphasized that getting vaccinated is a personal choice and he will not make vaccination compulsory.”

While 88% of inmates are vaccinated, that figure drops to just 49% for prison staff.

While the correctional facility offered incentives for inmates to get vaccinated, it also restricted activities for those who didn’t, Barth said.

“Many people had a strong feeling of being forced. It felt unfair or disingenuous.” he said. “They couldn’t go to work or do other things knowing that many of the officers without a mask aren’t vaccinated themselves.”

As of Tuesday, there were 55 positive cases among prison staff and 37 positive cases among people in prison.



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