The COVID-19 crisis in prisons has reached yet another grim milestone: the number of people in custody infected with the virus exceeded 2,000. At this moment, the virus lives within nearly 6 percent of the state-prison population: about 1 in 18 people. It has killed 44 people in custody and five corrections officers. Pennsylvania’s prisons have become incubators of the coronavirus, and there’s no telling how many more people inside and outside their walls will become infected as a consequence.
Our hearts go out to the thousands of Pennsylvanians whose loved ones behind bars are sick, or have died from this virus, including the four families who have lost a loved one this past week.
Immediate, safe reduction of the prison population is imperative for saving lives
Prisons are crowded, communal living environments where social distancing is nearly impossible and a virus spreads like wildfire. Speaking last week at a Yale University webinar on COVID-19 vaccination in prisons, Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel himself acknowledged the critical need to release people from prisons during the pandemic.
“Let me be very clear,” Wetzel said. “Reducing population inside correctional facilities [allows] corrections folks to control the disease, and that has a direct impact on the community. So this is a public health issue.”
Yet Pennsylvania has only reduced its prison population by 5,000 since the start of the pandemic: less than half of what officials said was necessary.
The underwhelming impact of Governor Wolf’s executive order establishing temporary reprieves is one reason the state has fallen short. Though officials estimated about 1,200 would be eligible for release under the program, only 159 were ultimately granted reprieves. Moreover, the criteria for eligibility were too narrow to begin with. Even people at higher risk from COVID-19 due to a medical condition were eligible only if they would otherwise have been released within one year. That made the reprieves unattainable for many of Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable people in custody.
Pennsylvania has an aging, medically frail prison population
In Pennsylvania, long sentences, including life without parole, are common and can be given to people who only tangentially participated in serious crimes. For example, an accomplice who themselves did not commit an act of violence can receive a life sentence along with the actual perpetrator. As a result of overuse of long sentences and life without parole, 23 percent of the state prison population is over 50, with about one-quarter of all older people serving life without parole, often for decades-old crimes in which they committed no violent acts themselves. Nationwide, Pennsylvania has the second-highest number of incarcerated people sentenced to life without parole. Despite research showing that older people present an extremely low risk for committing another crime, they remain incarcerated, along with countless other medically vulnerable seniors who were ineligible for a reprieve.
It’s time to finally establish medical parole
The outbreak raging through the State Correctional Institution at Laurel Highlands is a tragic example of what happens when this aging and infirm prison population collides with COVID-19. The prison for geriatric and medically frail people is also the site of the prison system’s worst outbreak, where 464 people in custody have contracted the coronavirus—well over half its population. Nine of them have died from COVID-19.
Establishing medical parole in Pennsylvania would make it possible for more aging and chronically ill people in custody to come home, and help dampen the coronavirus epidemic blazing through prisons. Medical parole is a legal mechanism that allows a parole board to review the cases of incarcerated people who suffer from serious, chronic medical conditions and consider whether they can safely be released into settings better equipped to provide the care they need. As of 2017, 18 states have medical parole for people with debilitating medical conditions. But Pennsylvania has no such provision, meaning the parole board has no ability to weigh the public safety risk and public health benefits of releasing the thousands of geriatric and medically frail Pennsylvanians living behind bars.
Multiple proposals for medical parole have already been under consideration in the state legislature in recent years, and some lawmakers are eager to move one forward to respond to the COVID emergency. Secretary Wetzel has testified before the state legislature in support of such a program. Medical parole, he said, would save the state at least $22 million a year. Wetzel also pointed to research showing that the older people get, the less likely they are to commit another crime. In fact, way back in 2005, Pennsylvania’s Advisory Committee on Geriatric and Seriously Ill Inmates found that parolees older than 50 had a recidivism rate of just 1.4 percent one-to-two years following release.
Now is the time to enact broad medical parole legislation.
Governor Wolf does not need to wait
We urge the Pennsylvania legislature to quickly pass a broad medical parole law. In the meantime, Governor Wolf need not wait for the legislature to act. The governor must also act without delay to broaden the eligibility requirements for a reprieve before more people die. Anyone who is not a risk to public safety and whose age or medical condition makes them especially vulnerable to the disease should be considered for release. Doing so would protect individuals at high risk for serious disease and slow the spread of the virus for those who remain incarcerated.
“We’ve never been confronted with a pandemic where you don’t know who’s sick, and it’s highly contagious,” Secretary Wetzel said last week. “And it’s really created a new set of circumstances.”
Only through unprecedented action can we rise to meet the demands of these extraordinary circumstances.
We also call on all county and state officials to: