Wolf issues executive order to thin state prison populations amid COVID-19 outbreak

Governor Tom Wolf at a March 12 press conference announcing Pennsylvania's new COVID-19 response strategies. Source: Commonwealth Media Services.

This story has been updated.

Gov. Tom Wolf announced Friday that he will use his executive powers to reduce populations in Pennsylvania’s state prisons, and establish a temporary reprieve program that could result in the release up to 1,800 non-violent offenders nearing the end of their sentences.

The announcement comes after legislation to reduce prison populations stalled in the state House and Senate, where lawmakers could not agree on conditions for release or which inmates deserved eligibility. 

State prison officials have identified 11 cases of COVID-19 in the state prison system, all at SCI-Phoenix in Montgomery County. On Friday, Wolf said the administration couldn’t wait any longer to reach an agreement with lawmakers.

“There’s a premium on speed here,” Wolf said on a conference call with reporters Friday. “We needed to move quickly.”

Wolf’s action answers the calls that prisoners and their advocates have sounded for weeks, as they’ve urged Wolf to exercise executive power to grant reprieves to some of the 48,000 inmates in state prisons to avoid a lethal outbreak.

It also represents Wolf’s latest invocation his powers under the state’s Emergency Management Act, which grants the governor broad authority when Pennsylvania is in a state of emergency — including the power to order an evacuation from any area in the state stricken by a disaster. 

The program Wolf’s office established Friday resembles one it laid out in legislation last week, which proposed transferring inmates to community correction centers or home confinement to serve out the remainder of their prison sentences. 

The program only will be open to inmates that the Department of Corrections considers non-violent, and who have nine months or less remaining on their prison sentence. Non-violent inmates whose age or preexisting health conditions put them at high risk for COVID-19 will qualify for the program if they have less than 12 months left on their sentences. 

Inmates who receive transfers would remain under state supervision, and could return to prison when Wolf lifts the state’s emergency declaration. But since the legislation targets inmates who are nearing the end of their prison sentences, it is possible that some would complete their sentences and become parole-eligible before the program expires.

Corrections officials estimate that 1,500 to 1,800 state prison inmates would qualify for the program. But they say that not all eligible inmates will receive transfers, since corrections staff must prepare individual plans for each inmate to ensure they have access to food, housing, and health and behavioral health services.

Corrections secretary John Wetzel said in a statement that it takes several days for Corrections staff to prepare each of these reentry plans, which are required for every inmate that leaves state custody. 

The order Wolf signed Friday also directs the Corrections Department to confer with county prosecutors and the state Attorney General before recommending any inmate for a transfer.

Wolf’s order will not affect prisoners in county jails. Those facilities are under the jurisdiction of local officials, who have developed their own policies in recent weeks to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. 

And while it achieves the same goals that his office hoped to achieve legislatively, Wolf’s office said it would not prevent lawmakers from taking further action to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in prisons. 

Advocates welcomed Wolf’s news on Friday but said more must be done to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 in prisons, jails and their surrounding communities.

Prison reform groups have said that the Cook County jail in Chicago offers a cautionary tale of what could come in Pennsylvania if prisons become hotbeds of infection. Since confirming its first two cases of COVID-19 in March, the Cook County facility has become the nation’s leading source of transmission for the disease. 

“If an outbreak were to occur in a Pennsylvania prison or jail, it could threaten to erase the progress we’ve made in the commonwealth,” leaders from the Abolitionist Law Center, and Amistad Law Project, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania said in a joint statement Friday. “Today, we applaud the governor but with the sober acknowledgement that more needs to be done. The clock is ticking.”

The union representing state correctional officers, meanwhile, derided Wolf’s plan as a “haphazard process.” State prisons are currently under a 23-hour-a-day lockdown, and transporting prisoners to community correction centers or home confinement could endanger correction officers and community members, union president Larry Blackwell warned in a statement.

Wolf on Friday said correctional officers were “are right to be concerned” about transfers. But he said that Wetzel and other state officials would would work with the union to ensure the safety of prison employees.