Dear Prison Society Supporters:
More than two years after Pennsylvania state prisons locked down for the COVID-19 pandemic, incarcerated people are still living under restrictions that stifle their efforts to live a meaningful, productive life behind bars. The “zone system” the Department of Corrections adopted to limit the number of contacts between individuals in the prison continues to sharply limit the time they have to gain an education, prepare for reentry, visit with loved ones, and even practice their religion.
In one example, the system forced incarcerated people “to choose between continuing our education or quitting our jobs,” a man who had to drop out of a college degree program told the Prison Society. In another, a Catholic prison chaplain recently resigned over how infrequent worship services have become for people of all faiths.
These restrictions may be justifiable when there is heightened risk of a Covid-19 outbreak, but current CDC guidelines raise doubts about the department’s use of the policy. It has outlasted the worst phases of the pandemic, and we believe that the zone system is now doing more harm than good.
This week’s newsletter is the first in a series that will take a closer look at the different detrimental impacts of this policy on incarcerated people.
Scheduling conflicts create barriers to growth
Under the zone system, the prisons are divided into “zones” whose residents are kept apart at all times. This means that incarcerated people can only access shared facilities on dates designated for their zone—including places where incarcerated people work, attend classes, worship, and visit with families.
In SCI Phoenix, Robert Groves writes that his zone only has access to the program services building 10 days a month, “where we attend school, trade certifications, library, reentry services, parole, psychology [department], religious services & gym.” As a result, programs “that would usually only last a month or two, now take 6 months,” he says. “G.E.D. testing now takes twice as long.”
The restricted schedules create conflicts that force people in custody to make hard choices. Andy Peifer, a social supports associate at the Prison Society who coordinates and teaches programs that help prepare people in custody to reenter society, says that only half of the people who signed up for a course he teaches showed up on the first day. The time scheduled for the course conflicted with worship services for the Muslims in that zone. The class time was ultimately changed to accommodate them, but the participants said this kind of scheduling conflict was commonplace.
"What we heard was there is often a conflict when there is some kind of programming offered,” Andy says. The course he teaches covers topics like writing a resume, creating a budget, and coping with psychological trauma and stress. "The last thing we want to be happening is that people are going home unprepared and ending up back in prison,” he says.
CDC guidelines call the policy into question
In its public statements, the DOC has justified the ongoing restrictions of the zone system as necessary to mitigate the ongoing threat of COVID-19. But CDC guidance for correctional facilities calls into question the way the department has extended its use indefinitely. The limits on movement under the zone system are an “enhanced prevention strategy” that is meant to be used temporarily during periods of heightened risk.
“When applying enhanced prevention strategies, correctional and detention facilities should weigh the risks associated with SARS-CoV-2 transmission against their impact on facility operations, mental health, and availability of services and programming for residents,” the guidance states.
The CDC stresses a flexible approach in which prisons deploy and roll back these measures in response to fluctuating levels of risk. In Pennsylvania prisons, however, the DOC has kept the zone system in place even as COVID risk in the community ebbed, and despite widespread vaccination and consistently low numbers of cases among incarcerated people--all factors that the CDC says should be considered when determining risk. This has left incarcerated people with the impression that the DOC’s true motive in maintaining the zone system is to assert greater control over their lives.
“It is past time for the DOC to reassess its use of the zone system and give due consideration to its negative impacts on the growth and wellbeing of people in custody,” says Claire Shubik-Richards, the Prison Society’s executive director.