COVID-19 in Pa.: Draft plan to reduce prison pop. includes limited eligibility, gives veto to prosecutors

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(*Updated, 8:41 a.m.: This story has been updated to clarify the position of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association)

State corrections officials will propose easing Pennsylvania’s prison population during the COVID-19 pandemic by allowing the transfer of non-violent inmates approaching the end of their sentences, according to a draft bill seen by the Capital-Star Friday.

A bill authored by the Department of Corrections would only allow individuals who are within nine months of finishing the minimum term of their sentence to be transferred to community correction centers or confined in their homes.

Inmates who are vulnerable to COVID-19 could qualify for transfer if they’re within a year of finishing their sentence. All transferred prisoners would remain under state supervision unless and until they’re granted parole.

The bill also grants district attorneys and prison officials veto power over any transfer.

The transfers also would prioritize the transfer of inmates whose preexisting health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and autoimmune diseases, put them at a higher risk of severe symptoms for COVID-19. 

It was not immediately clear how many inmates would be eligible for release under the draft legislation seen by the Capital-Star. But it appears consistent with plans Gov. Tom Wolf described in a video press briefing Friday.

Wolf said his administration was working with the Legislature to streamline the process so “people who are ready to leave … prison can do so and aren’t held up by bureaucratic red tape.”

Prison reform advocates and the state corrections officers union have called on state prison officials to take action to avert a COVID-19 outbreak in Pennsylvania’s prisons, where as many as 12,000 inmates are in high-risk groups for the disease, state Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said in a press phone call earlier this week.

*Through a spokesman, the corrections officers’ union said it has called for ending visitations and ending transfers. On Friday, the union sent the Wolf administration a letter asking it to answer a series of questions “regarding the potential release of inmates from state prisons due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Media reports from earlier this week suggested that the Republican-controlled General Assembly was considering legislation to reduce Pennsylvania’s 48,000-strong prison population by as many as 3,000 inmates.

The draft bill that circulated Friday appears to limit transfers to offenders without violent criminal histories. 

Prisoners convicted of violent crimes, sex offenses and weapons-related charges — who accounted for nearly 60 percent of the state’s prison population in 2018, according to data in an annual population report — would not be eligible for transfers.

The draft legislation viewed by the Capital-Star would not offer inmates unconditional release from state supervision. It allows the department to track the individuals with GPS monitoring, and to return transferred inmates to a state prison “for any reason.” 

However, it does call for Corrections staff to begin preparing eligible inmates for their return home. 

Since the legislation targets inmates who are nearing the end of their prison sentences, it is possible that some of those prisoners would complete their sentences and become parole-eligible in their transfer locations. 

The legislation requires each transferred inmate to have a reentry plan, laying out strategies for finding work and avoiding recidivism. Department of Corrections policy requires caseworkers to draft these plans for each state prison inmate prior to their release from prison.

Corrections officials could not be immediately reached for comment on the legislation Friday.