Despite high vaccination rates among Pennsylvania prisoners, some covid restrictions remain in place

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HARRISBURG — More than two years after the first cases of coronavirus were reported in Pennsylvania state prisons, some of the mitigation measures implemented by Governor Tom Wolf’s administration to reduce the spread of covid- 19 are still in place.

But with nearly 90% of inmates in state prisons vaccinated and cases down significantly, inmates and their advocates are calling on the Department of Corrections to reevaluate restrictions that sacrifice quality of life and add financial hardship. .

The coronavirus hit Pennsylvania state prisons in late March 2020, putting all 23 prisons in the system under quarantine. Extreme restrictions on movement kept people in cells and largely uninfected throughout the spring. But more contagious permutations of the virus have outgrown strict restrictions.

State prisons saw waves of infection and death from November 2020 to January 2021 and again the following winter.

More than two years into the pandemic, 166 incarcerated people and 12 prison staff have died from the virus, according to the correctional service. Since January, the large waves of positive covid-19 cases have largely decreased.

But advocates say the remaining mitigations have further isolated those incarcerated. Spotlight PA examined where state prison covid-19 policies stand today:

Launch program

Anticipating that prisons would become a covid-19 hotspot, Governor Tom Wolf signed an April 2020 executive order that authorized the release of nonviolent incarcerated people with a higher risk of serious illness if they caught the virus. His unilateral action was in response to a Republican plan that would have limited the number of releases to around 450.

State officials identified 1,200 people who were likely to meet the governor’s narrow criteria, but ultimately only 159 were released between April and June 2020. Some people originally identified as potential candidates did not qualify for the release program. dealing with drugs and alcohol or have had violence in their recent history. Others were disqualified because they had no plan for where to stay while on probation. Some chose to wait for parole instead of participating.

Of the 159 reprieves granted, 61 returned to prison for various reasons, including violating the conditions of their release, and one person died, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Maria Bivens said.

During a budget hearing in February, Corrections Secretary George Little told lawmakers that none of the people who came back did so for the same offense that originally sent them to jail, nor did they had committed violent crimes upon their release.

“Usually it was technical issues,” he said. “For example, they were pardoned at a particular place and they weren’t there. If they didn’t show up 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 were able to better care for them and track them while they were inside the facilities.

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

Meal in cell

At the start of the pandemic, the Department of Corrections moved meals from communal dining halls to cell delivery.

Four facilities – Cambridge Springs, Laurel Highlands, Muncy and Quehanna – have resumed group meals or are in the process of returning. But in the majority of state prisons, even though the number of covid-19 cases has declined, people are still eating their daily meals in the cells.

In some prisons, getting rid of three group meals a day has freed up time and space for more out-of-cell activities, Bivens said.

“Every installation is different and there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution,” Bivens wrote in an email. “The [Department of Corrections] continue to assess best practices for each establishment and adjust meal delivery as necessary. »

A March survey of 429 people in 23 state prisons by the Pennsylvania Prison Society, which advocates for people in state prisons, found that 62% of those surveyed would prefer to return to meals in the dining hall. 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 a cold substitute – grilled cheese is now a cheese sandwich; pancakes are now a third boiled egg breakfast,” wrote one person imprisoned in Albion. “Breakfasts are usually already sitting on the block at the time of counting – more than an hour before being served.”

In response to food-related complaints, the corrections department purchased insulated meal trays and carts, Bivens said.

Suspension of the quota

Inmates in Pennsylvania prisons pay a $5 copayment when seeking medical attention for something that is not an emergency or treatment for a chronic condition.

At the height of the pandemic, the Correctional Service suspended copayments for people reporting flu-like symptoms associated with covid-19. But implementation has been uneven, and supporters have called for a full suspension, which took effect in May 2021.

The department has since resumed charging a copayment for elective medical needs, except for flu-like symptoms. During the suspension, calls for medical care increased, 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 earn about $0.19 an hour, if they have a job.

“The department seems to take the position that establishing a copay reduces false sick calls,” said Noah Barth, director of prison monitoring for the Pennsylvania Prison Society. “While that may be true, it also reduces legitimate sick calls.”

Visit in person

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

During the visitation break, those incarcerated in state prisons could contact friends and family via free video calls, which were unavailable before the pandemic.

In-person visitation returned in May 2021, but the Correctional Service suspended it again in January after a new wave of covid-19 outbreaks. Visits resumed in March with day and time restrictions.

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

“This allows us to promote social distancing in the visiting rooms, maintain the integrity of the area and ensure visitors spend enough time with their incarcerated loved ones,” she said. “Previously, on busy days, the duration of a visit could be limited to allow the next group to enter.”

State prisons have implemented “zones” during the pandemic, a system Little called a “prison within a prison,” to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The size and number of zones vary by prison, but in theory people can only interact with those in the same zone.

Days and times for in-person visits are now assigned by area, potentially giving less flexibility to friends or family members who may need to make additional accommodations to be available, Barth said.

“More and more, what we’ve heard is that people feel the usefulness of the zone system is outdated,” he said. “The pandemic is on the decline and vaccination is high. It just becomes another way of dividing the population. In some cases, they are already mixing between areas for work. »

The permanent addition of video visits allowed family and friends to see their incarcerated loved ones without the need to travel, Bivens said.

“While we cannot guarantee that each inmate’s in-person availability will seamlessly align with each visitor’s schedules, we believe the scheduling system protects the health and safety of visitors, staff and the community. prison population,” she said.

Vaccination

The Wolf administration encouraged incarcerated people to get vaccinated: a $25 bursary credit, a significant amount equivalent to more than 130 hours of labor in prison jobs that paid $0.19 an hour.

Wolf also made vaccination or testing for covid-19 mandatory for state employees working in congregate settings, including prisons. In response, the union representing most prison guards in the state of Pennsylvania sued the state in September, but the Commonwealth Court dismissed the suit in October.

Different prisons have encouraged staff to get vaccinated, but participation by corrections employees remains low, according to self-reported figures to the Department of Corrections.

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

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

While the correctional service encouraged incarcerated people to get vaccinated, it also restricted the activities of those who did not, Barth said.

“There was a strong feeling among a lot of people of feeling coerced. It was unfair or dishonest,” he said. “They couldn’t go to work or do anything else when they know that many officers without a mask are not vaccinated themselves.”

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

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