Amid harsh winter for the pandemic, advocates, lawmakers pressure Wolf to release more from state prison

By: - February 9, 2021 6:30 am

Gov. Tom Wolf wears a mask during a briefing at the Pennsylvania Emergency Management headquarters in Harrisburg. Source: Commonwealth Media Services.

Less than two weeks after a Pennsylvania prisoner died while waiting for Gov. Tom Wolf to sign off on his early release, pressure is mounting on the Democratic governor to use his executive powers to bring more people home from prison.

More than thirty Democratic members of the state House and Senate wrote to Wolf on Monday urging him to use reprieve powers to thin the state’s prison population. The lawmakers warned that elderly and medically vulnerable inmates could face a death sentence if they’re forced to remain in detention.

“A person’s fundamental right to be safe and free from disease does not stop at the prison wall,” the lawmakers wrote, citing state data that says more than 100 prisoners and two corrections staffers have died of COVID-19 in the last year. “By the time you read this letter, more men and women will have died within our correctional facilities. Their deaths were preventable.”

When the first wave of COVID-19 struck Pennsylvania last spring, Wolf announced that as many as 1,800 state prison inmates would be eligible for conditional release under a reprieve program he created by executive action. But that program achieved just modest reductions to the state prison population: only 159 inmates have secured reprieves from Wolf to date, lawmakers said Monday, while the state prison population stands at more than 40,000 inmates.

Meanwhile, the state’s Pardons Board, which offers the only chance of freedom for people serving life sentences, put public hearings for lifers on hold for most of 2020 as its members tried to reach consensus on their high-stakes clemency cases.

COVID-19 infections and deaths mounted in state prisons and county jails this winter. A single state facility in Forest County saw more than 800 infections among prisoners and staff during a January outbreak, according to the Pennsylvania Prison Society, an advocacy group that watchdogs prison conditions.

The disease also claimed the life of Bruce Norris, a prisoner who got unanimous support from the pardons board in December when he asked it to commute his life prison sentence. Norris was waiting on Wolf to sign his commutation orders when he died.

Lawmakers and advocates are now calling on Wolf to flex his reprieve powers so that more prisoners can be released to their families. Prisoners whose age or medical conditions make them vulnerable to COVID-19 should receive top priority, they said.

Advocates also hope the reprieve powers could hasten the release of prisoners who have the support of the pardons board.

The five-member pardons panel recommended more than a dozen prisoners have their life sentences cut short last year. But Wolf has not signed the orders that will let them leave prison.

Those prisoners will remain incarcerated as officials in the Wolf administration conduct a final review process that has no fixed deadline.

It can take years for a commutation applicant to get a public hearing before the board. After a review that can include testimony from victims, prosecutors and corrections professionals, the panel must then vote unanimously to commute a life sentence.

Most prisoners who apply for clemency don’t make it through the rigorous vetting process. Even if they do, it’s not unusual for them to wait weeks or months for their release.

Once the board votes to support an applicant, Pardons Board staff must process their case materials and send them through a legal review before forwarding the recommendation to the Governor, Wolf spokeswoman Lyndsay Kensinger told the Capital-star Monday.

Wolf then reviews each case before signing commutation orders. Though it’s rare, he can choose to reject clemency applications the pardons board has endorsed.

Kensinger said Wolf’s delay in signing commutation orders is partly the result of the pardons board rapidly ramping up its workload over the last two years. Though the Wolf administration has assigned more staff to process the glut of paperwork that comes with each application, Kensinger said the office needs a larger appropriation from the General Assembly to accommodate the volume of cases.

“Without additional resources and staff, there is no ability to process the recommendations any faster,” Kensinger said.

Celeste Trusty, a policy director for the criminal justice reform organization FAMM, told the Capital-Star that “the governor absolutely has a right to look at each case. But we are in unprecedented times right now, and we need to use every mechanism possible to reduce the prison population.”

Trusty hopes the board will support more commutation applications at its next public meeting in March. But she also fears the office may struggle to keep pace with a growing backlog of cases.

That’s why Trusty thinks Wolf should grant commutation applicants a conditional release in the form of a reprieve if the board supports their application. That would allow them to live with their families while Wolf’s office reviews their case and decides whether to sign their commutation orders, she said.

If Wolf decides at the end of his review that a candidate isn’t suitable for early release, she said, the conditions of reprieve would allow state corrections officials to take that prisoner back into custody.

Trusty acknowledged that it’s not ideal for a prisoner to be granted freedom then be brought back to prison. But she said it could make a difference of life or death as COVID-19 continues to swirl in state corrections facilities.

“We really need to streamline this so we don’t have people waiting in limbo in the middle of a pandemic, terrified, when they’ve already been approved for a second chance,” Trusty said. “Reprieving these people would be an immediate way to get them out.”

Life on hold: How the COVID-19 pandemic derailed Pennsylvania’s pardons board

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.