These are trying times for people who live and work in prisons, and it’s been a particularly difficult week for one county jail in the heart of Pennsylvania enduring its first outbreak of COVID-19.
It started when a few employees at Cambria County Prison tested positive. On Friday-just a week later-the prison was experiencing a full-blown outbreak that had infected 44 people in custody and 19 staff members. Those are huge numbers for any correctional facility. But in a county with just over 600 cases total, the outbreak at the jail was responsible for the second-largest spike in new cases Cambria County had seen up to that point.
In the midst of this outbreak, a riot reportedly broke out in one of the prison’s housing units that drew a host of law enforcement agencies and emergency responders to the prison. The prison didn’t comment on what led to the riot, but we know that even minor outbreaks are major stressors for people in custody. Cambria County detainees who were potentially exposed to the virus were placed in isolation, and measures were taken to restrict movement prison-wide, such as suspending Zoom calls. Staff shortages may have kept even more of them confined to their cells, when people in custody have already endured months living in conditions resembling solitary confinement.
While restricting time out of cells can be a necessary precaution to prevent viral spread, the reality for people in custody is often even worse than advertised. Philadelphia’s jails are still failing to provide the minimum 45 minutes of out-of-cell time the city promised in June to settle a lawsuit, as well as adequate supplies of soap, masks and cleaning supplies. Even state prisons, which began easing restrictions months ago, are struggling to provide the hour of out-of-cell time required by law, as new outbreaks lead them to reinstate “enhanced quarantines.” We’re still receiving letters and calls from people in state prisons who have gone several days without a shower, and from concerned families cut off from loved ones inside who can’t access phones, Zoom or email.
We’ve received many calls this week relating to State Correctional Institution (SCI) Phoenix, and SCI Coal Township, which are working to contain new outbreaks of COVID-19. So far, nine people in custody and six staff at SCI Phoenix have tested positive, and SCI Coal Township reports 25 cases among residents and two among staff. Families who have suddenly lost contact with loved ones at these prisons want to know what’s going on inside. Unfortunately, we don’t always have solid answers, because the Department of Corrections doesn’t consistently and clearly communicate when facilities are under quarantine and what those quarantines entail.
We know these recurring outbreaks are straining the mental health of people in custody as the pandemic drags into its seventh month-not to mention the risks to their physical health.
The extraordinary situation in Cambria County also illustrates yet again that prisons remain vulnerable to outbreaks introduced by staff members, who still aren’t routinely being tested for the virus.
There is no better time for prisons to step up their efforts to protect against the coronavirus and keep communities informed about what’s going on inside. We call on all county and state officials to: