The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has confirmed what incarcerated people have long feared: harsh restrictions imposed during the pandemic are no longer about COVID-19. They are to become the "new normal."
Acting Secretary George Little said that the DOC plans to make permanent some policies enacted during the pandemic, including the practice of dividing prisons into “zones” that don’t interact. This system has put significant limitations on family visits, movement, programming and social interaction within the state’s 23 correctional institutions. Dining halls will also remain closed, and food will continue to be delivered to people in their cells, where they receive meals that are often cold, small or even rotten.
These policies were originally introduced to reduce the number of contacts between incarcerated people and reduce the spread of COVID-19. But as the pandemic recedes, the toll of these stifling restrictions continues to mount.
“Do we really think they’re going to be prepared to reenter society?”
After seven years ministering to people in DOC custody, Father John Pidgeon retired as a prison chaplain in March over these restrictions, which he believes infringe on incarcerated people’s First Amendment rights to exercise their religion. During the pandemic, the prison where the Catholic priest worked, State Correctional Institution (SCI) Phoenix, was split into four zones. Under this “zone system,” his incarcerated parishioners could only attend mass once a month. For devout Catholics, said Father Pidgeon, attending these services every week is “not an option, it’s a must.”
He wasn’t concerned only for his congregants. Muslims in the prison were forced to miss half of the weekly prayer services required by their faith. "Their religion is telling them, we must go every Friday,” Father Pidgeon said. “The DOC is saying, ‘eh, every other week is enough.’”
But he also saw how the all-encompassing restrictions of the zone system harmed incarcerated people in other ways. Drug use seemed to be increasing, he said. Two years into the pandemic, with no end in sight to this practice, Father Pidgeon could no longer tolerate it.
“These guys who are not getting schooling every day, not getting work every day, not getting programs every day, not getting religious services...do we really think they're going to be prepared to reenter society?"
DOC hazy on relaxing some restrictions
The DOC told the Prison Society that it plans to eventually modify some of the restrictions on access to programming, including religious services. But the timing of these plans and how they will be implemented in each of the 23 state prisons remain uncertain. Department officials also said they are planning a slight increase in family visits. But they declined to make visiting as accessible as it was before the pandemic, despite the large body of research demonstrating how visiting, in particular, is linked to reduced recidivism and better mental health. The plans to keep dining halls closed also runs contrary to past statements by Acting Secretary Little acknowledging the social benefits incarcerated people get out of sharing meals together.
The Prison Society will continue to share developments on this issue and shine a light on the ways these restrictions harm incarcerated people.