May 27, 2021

How county jails can safely reopen for family visits
Pennsylvania state prisons have begun reopening for in-person family visits, with all facilities expected to resume visits sometime this summer.

Pennsylvania state prisons have begun reopening for in-person family visits, with all facilities expected to resume visits sometime this summer. But there is no reopening timeline for the state’s 63 county jails, which operate independently and have received no guidance from state government on when or how they should let visitors back in. To date, less than a third of county jails have begun to allow in-person visits again.

To help inform county jails as they navigate this decision, the Prison Society reviewed CDC guidelines, consulted with public health experts, and researched policies adopted by prisons across the country. Last week we synthesized that research into guidance to county commissioners and wardens on how to plan a careful resumption of family visits.

The Prison Society recommends county correctional facilities resume non-contact visits in a manner consistent with CDC guidelines to prevent transmission of the coronavirus.

These include performing verbal COVID-19 screening and temperature checks on visitors entering the facility, requiring visitors to wear masks, using outdoor space for visiting when possible, maintaining physical distance with visitors, and limiting the frequency of visits.

Resuming in-person visits is critical to mental health and re-entry.

The intense isolation incarcerated people have endured over the past year is taking a toll on their mental health. Many people in prison custody have spent the majority of the pandemic confined to a small cell for 23 or 22 hours a day. Closing prisons to family visits during the pandemic eliminated a source of social support that research has demonstrated can help incarcerated people cope with mental distress, including the risk of suicide and self-harm. The Prison Society has heard an alarming number of reports of suicide in the last several months, including in Dauphin, Luzerne, Philadelphia, and Washington county facilities. The scarcity of social support also makes adjustment to and from prison more difficult. Research studies have established that family visiting supports successful reintegration and contributes to a safer prison environment for both staff and people in custody.

Caution is required as COVID-19 remains a deadly risk in correctional settings.

“We still need to keep in mind that there are populations that are vulnerable and need to be protected,” says Joe Amon, an epidemiologist at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health whose recommendations helped inform the Prison Society’s memo.

In addition to adopting safe visiting practices, Amon says it’s important that county jails keep up the work of vaccinating people in custody. Offering a one-time opportunity to get vaccinated isn’t enough. Jails should continue to make shots available for people who initially refuse them, he says, and for new arrivals who may not have been fully inoculated. They should consider ongoing vaccination campaigns part of their overall plan to resume normal activities.

“If county jails aren’t doing a good job promoting, explaining, [and] encouraging vaccination, then their job gets harder in every way,” Amon says.

Information from the Prison Society’s ongoing survey of county jails supports Amon’s recommendation. Of the 29 jails that have offered vaccines to incarcerated people, 11 have acceptance rates of 25% or less. No data is available for 13 of them, so there could be more with similarly poor immunity among the incarcerated.

The Prison Society’s complete recommendations for resuming visits in county jails are available on our website. We also continue to call on all state and county officials to:

  • Offer 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.

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