Pa. State Prisons Will Gradually Reopen, With COVID-19 Testing For Transfers And Releases

May 22, 2020

A phased reopening process for Pennsylvania state prisons will begin next Tuesday and all 25 state correctional facilities will see some coronavirus restrictions lifted, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections announced Friday.

The DOC published a chart, explaining how it will place facilities on a five-level scale, with level five being the most restrictive and level one the least restrictive. Each facility will be evaluated based on the number of cases among staff and inmates as well as the phase of the county it is located in according to the governor’s reopening plans.

On Tuesday, 11 state prisons - SCIs Camp Hill, Chester, Coal Township, Dallas, Frackville, Huntingdon, Mahanoy, Phoenix, Retreat, Smithfield and Waymart - will be placed in level four, which will allow up to 16 inmates at a time to do some activities like use the law library and be in the yard, but most restrictions will remain. 

Thirteen SCIs including Albion, Benner Township, Cambridge Springs, Fayette, Forest, Greene, Houtzdale, Laurel Highlands, Mercer, Muncy, Pine Grove, Rockview and Somerset will be placed at level three, where work, therapy, religious services and the commissary can resume in groups of no more than 20 inmates. Quehanna Boot Camp will also be placed at level three.

DOC Secretary John Wetzel said safety protocols will continue throughout the reopening process and the department will test all inmates being transferred or released to help control the spread of COVID-19. He credited the state’s overall mitigation efforts as a factor in deciding to reopen state prisons.

“What we did has clearly put us in a position where we feel like we can start working back to normal, which is our goal,” Wetzel said. 

More than half of Pennsylvania’s counties have seen some shutdown restrictions lifted in the past weeks. But Wetzel said, until the entire state goes to the green phase, in-person visits will still be suspended. 

As of Friday, 166 staff and 231 inmates across all state prisons have tested positive for the coronavirus. A combined total of six deaths have been reported among the positive cases, and 241 have recovered.

Wetzel told reporters during a call on Friday that the department has considered doing population testing in the facilities, but found the current rate of false negative test results to be too high. 

He said for universal testing among state prisons to be a meaningful mitigation method, there needs to be a vaccine and the error rate in testing has to drop below five percent.