Our hearts go out to the loved ones of six people in custody and three correctional staff who died this past week from the COVID-19. Their deaths are made more tragic by the slow pace of inoculation with the vaccine that could have saved their lives. Altogether, 103 people in custody and 11 staff in Pennsylvania prisons and jails have lost their lives to the virus.
This week also saw a massive virus outbreak in the state prison in rural Forest County. With more than 800 infections among people in custody, Forest County is now the most infected county in the country per capita. This demonstrates once again how easily a virus can rip through congregate settings like prisons once it slips inside.
Deaths of young corrections officers highlight staff vulnerability
People in custody and correctional staff who have died from COVID-19 rarely get remembrances from the media or public officials. The website Mourning Our Losses, attempts to address this by providing opportunity for friends, colleagues and families to publish individual memorials.
But the lives of two of the three staff who died this week were so unsettling that the local press paid tribute. According to the Morning Call, Gary Dean was 30 years old, a father, bodybuilder, and corrections officer at Lehigh County Jail whose “professional demeanor, bright smile, and positivity was uplifting and encouraging to everyone around him,” county officials said. Despite his youth and excellent state of physical fitness, COVID-19 took Dean’s life on Jan. 19.
The York Dispatch reported on the death of Lenward “Wood” McMillan, a father of two, youth sports coach, and 20-year veteran corrections officer at York County Prison whose life was cut short by COVID-19 last Friday at age 51.
The deaths of these corrections officers bring to light the onerous working conditions they endured. In the Lehigh County Jail, where at least 301 people in custody and 97 staff members have tested positive to date, corrections officers have been forced to work 16-hour shifts to cover for sick or quarantining co-workers, sometimes 5 days a week. Corrections officers and people in custody have complained of inadequate efforts to quarantine the infected and detect cases through testing. At York County Prison, at least 834 people in custody and an unknown number of staff have contracted COVID-19 during the pandemic. The local union for corrections workers has petitioned unsuccessfully for emergency sick leave, a policy it says is necessary to keep staff from coming to work when they might have coronavirus symptoms.
Slow progress on vaccines: small counties lead the way
In most parts of Pennsylvania, people in custody and correctional staff may have to wait until spring for vaccination, meaning these particularly dangerous settings will remain vulnerable to massive outbreaks for months to come.
But several counties are starting the work to eradicate this ongoing public health crisis. Last week, we shared that Crawford County had vaccinated nearly its entire staff, and now the jail workforce in Adams, Butler, Centre, and Franklin counties have also begun receiving shots. We commend these counties for finding a way to deliver vaccines to corrections staff. These shots will prevent more tragic deaths among corrections officers, help protect people in custody, and stem community infections.
Rampant viral spread at SCI Forest stands out in our new tracking map
The outbreak at SCI Forest is a vivid example of why prisons must be prioritized for vaccines. In less than a month, the virus has spread to over 800 people in custody at SCI Forest, about 40 percent of the population, and two of them have died from COVID-19. Just two weeks ago, the entire county had only seen 347 cases.
This outbreak at SCI Forest stands out on our newly revamped map tracking the spread of the coronavirus in Pennsylvania jails and prisons. The new map allows you to see both the extent of current outbreaks and the cumulative spread of the virus since the pandemic began. It also shows each state prison individually, making it easy to see at a glance which ones are suffering the worst outbreaks.
We once again call on all state and county officials to: