Philly DA, chief defender praise state prison release program, urge Wolf to go further

(Photo via The Philadelphia Tribune)

By Donald Hunt

PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner and Chief Defender Keir Bradford-Grey said they believe Gov. Tom Wolf has instituted a significant program in terms of reducing the state prison population and curbing the spread of the novel coronavirus.

But they also believe the governor needs to expand his order.

“Governor Wolf’s decision to use his executive authority in order to release people from state prison to prevent further COVID-19 outbreaks is a good start,” Krasner said in a written statement. “Following a holiday weekend commemorating new beginnings, I urge the governor to use all of the power entrusted to him by Pennsylvanians, including the power of reprieve, to keep people safe. A state prisoner has already succumbed to the coronavirus, and untold numbers of staff are already sick or are capable of transmitting COVID-19 to others who might get sick.

“We can all do the right thing every day. I call on Governor Wolf to do the right thing again, by using his reprieve power for more and different groups of inmates who can safely be released back to their families. If we do this right, we can keep many more Pennsylvanians safe.”

“At the rate the coronavirus is spreading in Pennsylvania’s prisons, we cannot afford to wait for the legislative process to play out before taking action,” Bradford-Grey said in a written statement.

“The Governor’s order for PA Department of Corrections to implement a Temporary Program to Reprieve Sentences of Incarceration program is a significant first step, but it will affect, at most, 4% of PA’s incarcerated population. Moreover, because detailed plans must be made for each person, many of whom will not have stable homes, it’s possible that less than 2% of the current population will actually be released. This, unfortunately, means that incarcerated people and prison will still be at high risk of COVID-19 exposure.”

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In her statement, Bradford-Grey said the number of qualified individuals through this program should be expanded.

“Releasing a larger number of non-vulnerable people who pose little risk to the community is the only way to protect the overwhelming majority of people who will remain incarcerated, as well as those working inside our state prisons,” she said. “Though we feel this order need to be expanded, Governor Wolf should be commended for displaying leadership and offering solutions to reduce the prison population, regardless of any potential political consequences.”

Claire Shubik-Richards, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, also applauded the governor’s order, and said releasing “two percent is better than nothing and that is going to create some space in the PA prisons, which will allow hygiene and safety measures that were all able to implement at home or allow them to be more implemented behind prison walls.”

“Gov. Wolf really took leadership,” Shubik-Richards said. “This issue of reaching people to protect public health and public safety that was put at the feet of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and they declined to do anything. Then, it was batted over to the legislature and they declined to do anything. Then, the buck really got passed to Gov. Wolf. He’s the person with Secretary [John] Wetzel at the Department of Corrections who stepped up.

“The executive branch showed the leadership that the judiciary and the legislature declined to do. Even though we would have liked to have seen an order like this three weeks ago before anyone in the Pennsylvania prisons was sick with COVID-19. It’s not too late,” Shubik-Richards said.

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Shubik-Richards noted the only prisoners confirmed to have the coronavirus are in SCI-Phoenix, where the state saw its first COVID-19 fatality over the weekend.

“That means that this public health safety measure can be taken with a degree of confidence that the people being released have not been exposed to the virus behind the prison walls.”

The releases could start as early as Tuesday.

More than 45,000 people are incarcerated in state prisons; 48.6% of them are Black, even though African Americans make up 12% of the state’s population.

Roughly 1,500 to 1,800 inmates are eligible for reprieve, but some might have trouble putting together a safe reentry plan.

“So, I would not be surprised if under 1,000 people actually are able to take advantage of these reprieves,” said Shubik-Richards.

Vulnerable inmates are aged 65 or older; anyone with an autoimmune disorders; pregnant inmates; anyone with a serious, chronic medical condition like heart disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, bone marrow or organ transplantation, severe obesity, kidney disease, liver disease, and cancer; or another medical that has them at higher risk for complications of coronavirus as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according the press release.

Donald Hunt is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared