COVID surge in Pa. prisons leads to calls for lockdown at all facilities

By: - December 16, 2020 11:56 am

(Holding cells at Rockview State Prison, Pa. Dept of Corrections)

In a statement released Tuesday, the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association (PSCOA) called on Gov. Tom Wolf and his administration to lockdown the state’s prisons and stop the transfer of inmates amid the surge in COVID cases. 

“Our system is on the verge of being overcome,” PSCOA Western Region Vice President John Eckenrode said in the statement. “… Right now, lockdowns and pausing transfers are the best way to help protect corrections officers, staff and inmates.”

The call for a lockdown of the state’s prisons comes just four days after state Corrections Secretary John Wetzel announced a 13-day reorganization effort aimed at improving mitigation efforts in facilities across the commonwealth. 

The reorganization efforts would continue to transfer inmates and allow SCI-Smithfield, in Huntingdon County, which confirmed its first death of an inmate with COVID-19 on Dec. 4, to serve as a regional infirmary for inmates who do not have COVID. 

“During this system reorganization, we will transfer inmates to other prisons to provide relief to some facilities whose designs provide mitigation challenges,” Wetzel said in a statement. “We have a sound transfer protocol in place. We test inmates for COVID-19 prior to transfer. No one is moved unless they test negative. Once moved, the inmates are immediately quarantined for 14 days and are then tested again. We take the safety and health of our staff and inmates very seriously.”

The concerns raised by PSCOA were reinforced by continuing reports of death among inmates with COVID-19.

From Dec. 4 -11, the state Department of Corrections reported the death of six inmates with COVID-19 across six different facilities in the state.

One death of an inmate with COVID-19 was reported at SCI-Smithfield on Dec. 4. There are 54 active cases of COVID-19 among inmates at SCI-Smithfield and 34 among staff. 

SCI-Mercer confirmed its first death of an inmate with COVID-19 on Dec. 4. SCI-Mercer has 10 active cases of COVID-19 among inmates and none among staff. 

A day later, SCI-Pine Grove, in Indiana County, confirmed the death of an inmate with COVID-19. The inmate died at a local hospital. SCI-Pine Grove has five active cases among inmates and none among its staff. 

The death of another inmate with COVID was reported on Dec. 11 from SCI-Somerset, where state correctional officials report 345 active COVID cases among inmates, and 38 among staff, according to DOC data.

A fourth death, also reported on the 11th, occurred during transport to a local hospital from SCI-Waymart in northeastern Pennsylvania’s Wayne County. Waymart reports 482 active cases of COVID-19 among inmates and 17 cases among its staff. 

SCI-Fayette, in the southwestern part of the state, reported its first death of an inmate with COVID on Dec. 11. The inmate died at a local hospital, according to the department. 

SCI-Fayette has three active cases of COVID-19 among inmates and 22 cases among its staff, state data shows. 

Five of the inmates were in their seventies. A sixth was in their late thirties. 

The first reported COVID-related death in a Pennsylvania prison occurred in April at SCI-Phoenix in hard-hit Montgomery County. 

Wetzel has said that the spread of COVID-19 in the commonwealth’s prison system mirrors that of the community. 

“Just as we see a surge in community COVID-19 cases, our corrections/parole supervision system is experiencing a surge in cases. As a result, we are taking advantage of the nearly 6,000 decrease in our inmate population we’ve experienced since March to reorganize and reset our system,” Wetzel said. “We look at this as a time of cleaning, healing and strengthening our system.”

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Cassie Miller
Cassie Miller

A native Pennsylvanian, Cassie Miller worked for various publications across the Midstate before joining the team at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. In her previous roles, she has covered everything from local sports to the financial services industry. Miller has an extensive background in magazine writing, editing and design. She is a graduate of Penn State University where she served as the campus newspaper’s photo editor. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree in professional journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In addition to her role at the Capital-Star, Miller enjoys working on her independent zines, Dead Air and Infrared. Follow her on Twitter: @Wordsby_CassieM.

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