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PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS

PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS

Thursday, April 23, 2020 by APRIL PETERSON apeterson@tnonline.com in Local News

‘We’ve put guard rails on the process’

In a media conference call April 15, Department of Corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel addressed topics concerning COVID-19 in the state’s prison system.

Increased mental health services, coronavirus testing at prison and halfway house facilities, staff protocols and inmate release guidelines received attention.

“Our staff is all essential,” Wetzel said, referring to department of corrections employees.

As of April 17, one inmate death was confirmed as determined to “be acute respiratory distress from pneumonia due to COVID-19,” according to the department of corrections website, www.cor.pa.gov. The inmate was a 67-year-old male incarcerated for first-degree murder in Philadelphia County. He died in Einstein Medical Center.

The man was an inmate at State Correctional Institution at Phoenix, Montgomery County, a facility Wetzel noted as having the greatest number of cases of COVID-19 in the state correctional system with 22 inmates testing positive and six negative results pending, according to a count provided on the department of corrections website April 19. Thirty-five employees systemwide had tested positive and 112 employees had tested negative. Fifty-eight inmates systemwide had tested negative for COVID-19, according to figures posted April 19.

Early mitigation efforts, including mask distributions, lockdown and testing, helped slow the spread, Wetzel said. He noted, however, lockdown likely is not sustainable over the long term.

Rounds for mental health staff, including peer counselors, are increased, Wetzel said. Phone calls and video visits for inmates also are available. Video messages of support from celebrities also are coming in, Wetzel said.

On April 10, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered Pennsylvania Department of Corrections officials to establish a temporary program to reprieve sentences of incarceration to help alleviate population concerns and limit the spread.

By the order, eligible for consideration for release are individuals “including those who are at greater risk from the effects of COVID-19, and who may be temporarily and safely released from the current sentence of state incarceration to supervised community placement.”

According to Wetzel, released inmate sentences are suspended and selected inmates are expected to return to complete their sentences.

Those eligible for release under the program are vetted and input from authorities, including local officials, district attorneys and judges, are factored into who gets released, according to Wetzel.

The order further specifies the release program is for “vulnerable individuals who would otherwise be eligible for release within the next 12 months; or any inmate within nine months of their minimum eligibility release date. In either instance, the inmates must meet the defined criterion and the release must not pose a risk to public safety.”

The order continues: “Vulnerable inmates shall include inmates at risk based upon age, anyone with autoimmune disorders, who is pregnant, or who has serious chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, bone marrow or organ transplantation, severe obesity, kidney disease, liver disease, and cancer, or other medical condition that places them at higher risk for coronavirus, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

Release program concerns include releasing inmates into halfway houses where exposure to the virus may occur because the houses are within communities outside prison walls.

Some eligible for release will return to their families.

Wetzel emphasized in the April 13 media call those potentially eligible for release are reviewed on a case-by-case basis. District attorneys, judges and other law enforcement officials have input as well, Wetzel said.

COVID-19 testing, including checking for fever and other known symptoms, may apply if an inmate is set for release from a high-risk facility. Those inmates eligible for release and testing positive will be treated, Wetzel said.

Those released are issued two masks.

“We’ve put guard rails on the process,” Wetzel said.

“A responsible approach to testing that makes sense,” is preferred, Wetzel responded to a question as to why all inmates are not tested.

A plan for the correction system after the lockdown and quarantine brought on by COVID-19 continues to evolve, Wetzel said.

“We’re really just trying to mitigate the challenge,” Wetzel said.