sci laurel highlands

SCI-Laurel Highlands in Somerset Township.

HARRISBURG – Three groups advocating for inmate rights are calling on the state to act to release inmates who might be at risk of serious illness or death once coronavirus begins to spread through the state’s prison system.

Thus far, there have been 185 cases of coronavirus identified in Pennsylvania. The outbreak has claimed one life in Pennsylvania.

Attorneys for an inmate in SCI-Phoenix in Montgomery County have filed court documents seeking to have him moved to an outside hospital because he had symptoms consistent with coronavirus and had not been tested for it, said Andy Hoover, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Susan McNaughton, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, said in an email that no inmates in the state prisons have tested positive for coronavirus.

Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine was asked about coronavirus in the prisons during her daily briefing on the outbreak.

Levine said that public health officials have been working with the Department of Corrections on preventative measures and that those same messages have been shared with county officials who run the county jails.

Outside visitors were barred from entering the state prisons beginning last Friday. The Department of Corrections on Thursday began offering video visitation for inmates, that allows inmates to interact with friends and relatives through an online meeting app.

The Department of Corrections has enacted a variety of other measures intended to prevent the spread of coronavirus inside the prison walls, according to the department.

Those include: screening all inmates before admitting them into the prison, making hand sanitizer more widely available throughout the prisons and doing more to sanitize “high-use areas” in the prisons and in prison vehicles.

Nyssa Taylor, Criminal Justice Policy Counsel, ACLU of Pennsylvania said those measures will likely not be enough

Once coronavirus enters the prison system, she said, it spreads “like wildfire.”

This is particularly worrisome in prisons with large numbers of elderly inmates or those with other medical conditions that would make them vulnerable to coronavirus, she said.

As of 2018, nearly 1,900 people of the total state prison population were over the age of 60. The only treatment currently available for those who contract a life-threatening case of coronavirus is supportive care using a ventilator. The Department of Corrections had four ventilators, all of them at SCI-Laurel Highlands, which has 1,521 inmates, all of whom are either elderly or dealing with severe illness or disease.

The groups have called on the state to release as many prisoners who may be vulnerable to coronavirus as possible and to coordinate the inmates’ placements with local officials to ensure that they end up in safe settings.

As part of that, they’ve asked Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who chairs the Board of Pardons, to convene an emergency session of the pardons board to commute the sentences of as many inmates as possible.

“Social distancing is impossible within prisons,” said Bret Grote, legal director for the Abolitionist Law Center. “We can anticipate (coronavirus) will get into every prison and spread rapidly.”

That’s not just bad for the inmates, he added. Once an outbreak tears through a prison, staff will be susceptible to exposure, he said. Those staff members may spread the illness into the outside community, which in most cases, are in rural areas around the state, he said.

In addition to the ACLU and the Abolitionist Law Center, the Amistad Law Project, a Philadelphia-based inmates' rights group, also joined in the call for releasing vulnerable inmates.

The idea of releasing inmates due to the coronavirus outbreak has been embraced elsewhere. The Cuyahoga County Prison, in Ohio, released 200 non-violent offenders earlier this week, according to CNN.

In California, Los Angeles County has announced plans tO both release non-violent offenders and reduce the number of arrests to decrease the county jail population, according to the Los Angeles Times.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

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