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State Officials, Activists Argue Over Coronavirus In Prisons

Prison-reform advocates and the state Department of Corrections jousted Thursday morning over whether the coronavirus has already infiltrated the state prison system – and over what should be done to limit its spread.

Corrections officials said in a Thursday-morning statement that it had not detected any positive cases of COVID-19 within the state prison system, though corrections secretary John Wetzel told 90.5 WESA’s The Confluence Thursday, that one inmate has been tested for the disease after showing flu-like symptoms. Wetzel said results are expected Friday.

The department asserted there had been no positive results, however, moments after prison reform advocates claimed someone at the State Correctional Institution-Phoenix  in southeastern Pennsylvania had tested positive for the disease.  

Nyssa Taylor, criminal justice policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said on a call with reporters that she had received word of the diagnosis late the previous night from “a person who works in the system.”

But in a statement Thursday afternoon, the ACLU walked back that claim, saying it had “since learned  that the prisoner in question has not been tested but is exhibiting the symptoms of the virus.”


“His attorney has filed for emergency relief to have him released from prison,” the statement continued. “The district attorney in his case recently filed to have his conviction and sentence vacated because he is likely innocent.”

The Department of Corrections oversees more than 47,000 people across the state. Although the corrections department maintains there have been no positive cases of the disease, prison reform organizations called on state officials to release inmates from state facilities before a case could spread.

The ACLU joined with the Abolitionist Law Center and the Amistad Law Project in sending an open letter to Governor Tom Wolf Wednesday. The letter urged officials to “explore emergency measures to release as many elderly people and as many people with comorbidities and complex medical needs from prison as quickly and as safely as possible.”

“State prisons force thousands of people into close daily contact,” the letter read. “Each of these facilities has the potential to be its own epicenter of spreading infection, with people moving in and out of the facilities on a daily basis, which puts local communities at risk.”

The groups pressed the state’s Parole Board to release as many people as possible. The board, the letter said, should establish guidelines for freeing more prisoners who have already served their minimum sentence but have not yet been approved for release on parole supervision. New criteria, the organizations said, should allow automatic parole for eligible prisoners who “have been misconduct free for a certain amount of time, have demonstrated rehabilitation, or are deemed low risk in other ways.”

The parole board should also screen people who have not completed their minimum terms, for expedited release, the letter said. It added that those under parole supervision should be exempt from in-person check-ins, and instead report to parole agents by phone or video where possible, to prevent transmission of the virus.

Meanwhile, the letter added, the state's Board of Pardons, should convene emergency meetings to commute the sentences of people serving life sentences.

Speaking with 90.5 WESA's The Confluence this week, Wetzel said his department is taking precautions to protect inmates.

“Should we get a case in one of our facilities, and each facility has their own quarantine plan, they would be moved immediately to an isolation cell,” he said. “But the vast majority of our efforts are preventative right now.”

Those measures include hand washing, more intensive cleaning, prohibiting outside visitors and cutting down on the number of inmates in cafeterias and recreational areas.

Spokesperson Maria Finn said in a statement that state corrections personnel are taking precautions to protect inmates.

“We are fully compliant with CDC guidelines for testing,” Finn wrote. “Our inmates have access to robust medical staff/operations.”

She said Doctor Nicholas Scharff, who formerly served as the DOC’s former chief of clinical services and now contracts with the system, will help to facilitate the delivery of care.

*This story was updated at 3:42 p.m. Thursday, March 19, 2020, to reflect that the ACLU retracted its claim that a prisoner as State Correctional Institution-Phoenix had tested positive for COVID-19.

Copyright 2020 90.5 WESA

An-Li became a reporter while completing her law degree at Stanford. In law school, she wrote about housing affordability, criminal justice and economic development, among other topics. She also served as the intern to NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, helping Ms. Totenberg to cover the U.S. Supreme Court and other legal matters. Originally from Pittsburgh, An-Li interned with the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette before joining WESA in August 2017.