PA Inmate Update Covid-19, by Rick DiLaurenzo

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This information appears as a public service for the family and friends of inmates in the PA State Prison System.  The website: https://www.cor.pa.gov/Pages/COVID-19.aspx    has information that is updated daily with respect to the program of dealing with the Corona Virus in each of the State Correctional Facilities.

(See Editor’s note at the end of the article for information given me by inmates at two state facilities that have positive cases,which include:  Camp Hill, Chester, Dallas, Fayette, Greene, Huntingdon, Phoenix, Rockview, Smithfield, and Waymart.  So far,there are no deaths of employees, and one death of an inmate at SCI Phoenix.)

The original statement from the PADOC appeared on March 30, 2020, and is reproduced here:

Department of Corrections Quarantines State Prison System to Fight COVID-19, Protect Inmates and Staff

Harrisburg, PA – Department of Corrections Sec. John Wetzel today announced that at 10:00 PM on March 29, he implemented a statewide inmate quarantine in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Quarantining the entire system is in the best interest of our employees and our inmates,” 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.”

On March 29, DOC officials announced that its first COVID-19 case was confirmed for one inmate at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) at Phoenix, Montgomery County.

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 DOC houses nearly 44,600 inmates in 25 state prisons. County prisons are not operated by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and are not impacted by this quarantine.

On March 28, DOC officials began using SCI Retreat as a reception facility for new court commitments and parole violators to limit outsiders entering the system. Individuals at this prison are quarantined for 14 days upon their arrival.

DOC leaders also have been working to reduce the inmate population by:

  • Working with the parole board to maximize releases
  • Reviewing parole detainees for individuals in county jails and state prisons
  • Expediting the release process for anyone with a pending home plan
  • Reviewing inmates within the state prison system who are beyond their minimum sentences
  • Reducing the number of reentrants in halfway houses
  • Giving each inmate released a medical screening and referring to doctors when appropriate

Find the latest information, including a daily dashboard, on the DOC’s COVID-19 efforts here.

Find the latest information on the corona virus here.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  I have received letters and emails from Pennsylvania inmates that go beyond the official information and let us know what is going on from their perspective.  Of course, they are living the reality that the rules produce, and they are doing their best to cope with the changes, which impact everyone.  Instead of sharing their actual information, I am summarizing for the sake of brevity and to avoid revealing specific identities.

One inmate that I have known for many years laments that the Spanish speaking community is very poorly represented at his facility in terms of Christian information–there is only one channel which has been out of service for a month.  There is little or no mental care, and only 20 minutes/day outside of the cell to use the kiosk for email communications–with only 5 cells opened at a time.  Same is true for 10 minute showers.  His facility has one staff member proved positive–no inmates and no deaths so far.

Another inmate reveals a little more detail–his facility does not yet have a reported case of Corona Virus among the staff or inmates.  He, too, is a Christian, doing his best to learn to deal with the many changes.  All classes have been canceled and the teachers have written out assignments for the inmates to accomplish, which are then picked up the following week by the staff and new assignments are then given out.   The situation with masks is very confusing to him and many other inmates.  Each inmate has been assigned a mask to wear, which is not an “N 95 mask”, and does not prevent the spread of virus.  They are required to wear the mask outside of their cell–but they all breathe the same recirculated air while they are in their cell all day and all night–they are not required to wear a mask during those many hours.  The setup is not able to protect them from infection at all.  Appears to be just window dressing for the public to believe that something is being done.

Some men have reported that they are receiving more free envelopes to write to family and friends.  They are also receiving more free phone calls.

On the other hand, the free video visits (since in person visits are not allowed during this time) are very hard to get approved.  I have emailed, as instructed, many requests for video visits, since I communicate with many inmates at a variety of facilities.  In each request, I am officially on their visitors list, and have made the request weeks in advance of the desired date of video visit–but, so far, only one such video visit has been granted to me or to any of the volunteers at our ministry.  Obviously, the system is unable to handle to tremendous number of requests from family and friends.

Anyone who is interested in Christian prison ministry–sending encouraging letters and cards to PA inmates is welcomed to contact me for assistance.  I will be happy to send you information and answer questions.

Rick DiLaurenzo, Founder and Editor, PrisonMentoring.com–A Fellowship of Joy, By Rick DiLaurenzo Box 310, Hilltown, PA 18927

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