February 4, 2021

Governor Wolf must act on clemency recommendations before more die
After 45 years in prison, Bruce Norris finally had a chance to come home to his family.

After 45 years in prison, Bruce Norris finally had a chance to come home to his family.

The Pennsylvania Board of Pardons voted unanimously to recommend his release, and all that remained was for Governor Wolf to sign off on his clemency. But the 69-year-old would never get his chance. His petition still sat on the governor’s desk 40 days later, when he died from the COVID-19 he caught while waiting in prison.

We were deeply saddened to learn of Mr. Norris’ passing, and our hearts go out to his loved ones. Altogether, 102 people in custody and 10 corrections workers have died from COVID-19.

Mr. Norris’ death should never have happened. At a time when Governor Wolf’s own corrections secretary continues to emphasize the need to release more people from prison, his inaction is putting lives in needless jeopardy.

Others continue to wait for the governor to act

There are about a dozen other people whose life sentences were recommended for clemency by the Board of Pardons but who remain in prisons amid raging coronavirus outbreaks as they wait for the governor’s approval. According to reporting by The Appeal, Governor Wolf has so far approved only one lifer recommended by the board last year. Seven of them have been waiting for over 150 days.

Such delays can be torturous for petitioners during normal times. During a pandemic, they can be lethal.

“It is unthinkable to keep people who have been given such a rare glimmer of hope in limbo--especially during a deadly pandemic that is overwhelming our correctional facilities,” wrote Celeste Trusty, Pennsylvania State Policy Director for FAMM in a letter to Governor Wolf this week.

We join FAMM in urging the governor to act immediately on the many clemency applications sitting on his desk. Securing a recommendation from the Board of Pardons is a rigorous, lengthy process in which applicants are vetted by the board’s five members, including Attorney General Josh Shapiro, Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, and a representative for crime victims. The review furnishes the governor with everything he needs to know about each petitioner’s case to make a decision.

The governor’s office has said it doesn’t have the resources to keep pace with its own review of clemency recommendations made by the board, which have increased during the pandemic. But the administration’s apparently inflexible approach to reviewing these recommendations represents an indifference to the deadly threat of COVID-19 faced by people whom the board has deemed deserving of release.

It also represents another failure by the governor to use his executive power to reduce the number of people in prison and mitigate the coronavirus epidemic in prisons. The reprieve program he established earlier in the pandemic used narrow criteria and resulted in temporary reprieves for only 159 people, a small fraction of the population reduction of 12,000 corrections officials said was necessary to control outbreaks. The state prison system has still only reduced its population by about half of that number.

“Let me be very clear: we need further population reduction,” Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel said at a hearing held by Democratic state senators last month.

To prevent further tragedies, we call on Governor Wolf to create a transparent policy of granting or denying all clemency recommendations within 14 days.

In addition, we once again call on all state and county 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 until they are vaccinated;    
  • 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.
  • Expand efforts to safely reduce the number of people in custody.

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