HARRISBURG – The state prison announced a statewide quarantine on Monday after the first inmate tested positive for coronavirus.

Also Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union asked the state Supreme Court to order counties to begin releasing inmates who may be particularly vulnerable to life-threatening illness from coronavirus, noting that at least 13 jail inmates and staff have tested positive – in Delaware County and Philadelphia.

The state Department of Corrections announced Sunday that an inmate at SCI Phoenix in Montgomery County has tested positive for coronavirus.

"Quarantining the entire system is in the best interest of our employees and our inmates,” Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said. “This is essentially forced social distancing. We must take this step to contain the virus to one facility and to keep it from spreading throughout the system. I don’t want to wait until we have several cases in our system to act. We’re taking this proactive measure now.”

Wetzel said that inmates will be fed in their cells, and they will be afforded out-of-cell time for video visits, phone calls, access to the law library, as well as being provided with in-cell programming. All inmate movement will be controlled to conform to social distancing recommendations.

“We realize this is an inconvenience for staff and the inmates, but again, we are doing this to protect everyone’s well-being,” Wetzel said.

The ACLU earlier this month called on the state prison system to begin releasing vulnerable inmates. The Department of Corrections has been working with the parole board to release as many inmates as possible, according to Wetzel’s statement.

Monday, the civil liberties organization said it was asking the Supreme Court to intervene to get county jail inmates released because jails are particularly poorly-suited to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

Under the ACLU’s proposal, judges would be ordered to release inmates who are serving time for minor, non-violent offenses, are nearing or are past their minimum sentences or have medical conditions that would make them susceptible to coronavirus, according to legal documents. That would include people jailed for technical parole violations, those being held under work-release and inmates who are in jail just because they couldn’t afford cash bail. The district attorney would have the opportunity to object if he or she disagreed with the release of any particular inmate, according to legal documents.

State Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Delaware County, backed the ACLU’s suggestion saying that based on the approaches taken in other states, Pennsylvania could release jail inmates with protections. All inmates being held for technical probation violations could be released “pending resolution of this crisis.” He called for releasing all inmates being held just because they couldn’t afford cash bail, unless there was evidence that the inmate is a flight risk.

“Other states are in fact taking the sort of aggressive action we need to institute immediately. And it’s not just states,” Leach said. “Even notorious human-rights abuser Iran has now released over 100,000 prisoners.”

The group representing prosecutors in Pennsylvania said county officials have been making efforts to reduce jail populations when appropriate and said any move to release inmates statewide should include measures to provide continued supervision after their release.

“Those collaborative efforts must be thoughtful, individualized and focused on non-violent offenders to ultimately serve what is in the best interest of public health and public safety. “There must also be a way to provide supervision and be considerate of victims of crime,” said a statement provided by the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.

In asking the court to order the statewide move, the ACLU pointed to steps taken by individual counties to release vulnerable inmates, including Allegheny County which last week released more than 500 inmates from the county jail over concerns about coronavirus.

ACLU spokesman Andy Hoover said Lackawanna County and Delaware County have also been working to release inmates, though on a smaller scale than the release plan launched by Allegheny County.

“What we have here is a small number of counties taking action on their own,” he said.

The ACLU’s legal petition was accompanied by letters of support from two infectious disease specialists Joseph Amon, a professor at Drexel University and Jonathan Golob, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Medicine.

“I am concerned that Pennsylvania jail facilities do not have the ability to implement the critically important principle of social distancing, such as maintain six feet of separation at all times including meals and location of beds,” Amon said. “Nor are they apparently taking extraordinary measures to identify and properly isolate individuals at high risk, those with potential exposure (e.g., from work detail) or those with symptoms consistent with COVID-19.“

It will be difficult for jail staff to recognize the threat of coronavirus in time considering that inmates are frequently being brought into jails, Golob said.

“With new individuals and staff coming into the detention centers who may be asymptomatic or not yet presenting symptoms, the risk of infection rises even with symptom screening measures,” he said.

The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania has taken any particular position on how jails should respond to the threat of coronavirus or the ACLU’s petition, said Ken Kroski, a CCAP spokesman.

The group has backed guidelines for releasing vulnerable inmates when possible as a means of reducing jail populations, he said.

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

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