January 7, 2021

21 more people in custody died of COVID; hearing this morning on prison conditions
As many of us slowed down and took time off for the holidays, the coronavirus continued its deadly spread through Pennsylvania county jails and state prisons.

As many of us slowed down and took time off for the holidays, the coronavirus continued its deadly spread through Pennsylvania county jails and state prisons. Since our last update in mid-December, the virus has killed 21 more incarcerated Pennsylvanians and one correctional employee. The correctional employee worked at the Delaware County prison and was the second staff member at that facility to lose their life to the disease.

We extend our condolences to their families and loved ones as we mourn the continuing loss of life to COVID-19 in prisons. As of today, a total of 76 people in custody and 6 staff members have died from the virus in Pennsylvania jails and prisons.

Problems mounting in jails and prisons

The Prison Society has received numerous complaints from people in custody that people who become ill in prison are not being promptly quarantined and kept isolated from healthy individuals.  Similar complaints have been reported in the press, including at SCI Dallas, where more than 1,200 incarcerated people have contracted the virus and at the Lehigh County Jail, where more than 200 people in custody have been infected, including one who died from COVID-19 on New Year’s Eve.

Outbreaks have also led staffing shortages for jobs performed by both employees and incarcerated people that sometimes lead to interruptions in critical services. In Lehigh County Jail, one incarcerated person reported going 20 hours without a meal.  In the Allegheny County Jail, chronic staffing shortages led to an incident where a medical emergency went unattended for 9 minutes. These issues exacerbate already trying conditions in jails, where people are confined to their cells for all but an hour or less a day.

Vaccine rollout still uncertain

Correctional employees and incarcerated people are slated for shots in the next phase of Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 vaccination plan, but Pennsylvania’s health secretary declined on Monday to estimate when that phase could begin. The process is going slower than expected nationwide, and the federal government has shipped far fewer doses than it had committed to delivering by now. Still, some other states, such as California and Washington, have already begun to vaccinate incarcerated people who are medically vulnerable. Philadelphia, which has its own vaccination plan, has committed to inoculating people held in jail in one of the earliest phases but is still working to vaccinate health care workers, the highest priority group. We are closely tracking plans to vaccinate people who live and work in prisons and will continue to share new developments.

State Senators and Philadelphia City Council Host Hearings on Prison Conditions

Local legislators are starting to sound the alarm about prison conditions. Both the Philadelphia City Council and the Pennsylvania State Senate Democratic Policy Committee have organized hearings on the topic. We are grateful to have been asked to testify at these proceedings.  We are honored to stand with the many advocacy organizations and impacted people calling for needed action.

Todays' Pennsylvania State Senate Democratic Policy Committee starts at 11:00 and can be live-streamed HERE.

A recording of the Philadelphia City Council's hearing on conditions at the Philadelphia Department of Prisons can be watched HERE.

While the new year brings hope for an end to the pandemic, the coronavirus’s devastating impact on prisons persists. We renew our calls for all county and state officials to:

  • Administer COVID-19 vaccinations to all people in custody and staff as soon as they become available.
  • Implement weekly, rapid testing of all staff that come into contact with people in custody;
  • Require that every county publicly report prison testing results and virus-related deaths in custody;
  • Test and quarantine every new person entering custody; and
  • Eliminate the medical co-pay for accessing health care while in custody.

Sky Blue Heart
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