At the start of 2022, three major trends are converging to cause particularly deadly conditions in Pennsylvania's prisons and jails: the omicron surge, overuse of incarceration, and staffing shortages.
Omicron surges in prisons and jails
COVID-19 alone has killed at least 163 people in custody in prisons and jails statewide, including 9 just last month as the Omicron variant swept the country. There are likely more deaths that we are not aware of, because county jails are not required to report this information and sometimes don’t. In Mercer County, for example, the public didn’t learn of a COVID death last January until the Prison Society brought it to light 8 months later. According to a recent study in JAMA, people confined to prisons are over three times as likely to get infected and 2.5 times as likely to die from the disease.
Too many people in custody and not enough staff
Eighteen people died inside Philadelphia jails in 2021. From what we know so far, none of these deaths was COVID-related. Rather, these fatalities were largely the result of unsafe conditions where violent assaults are common and incarcerated people have been neglected in virtually abandoned cell blocks. The 18 deaths include at least three homicides, two people who died by suicide and four deaths ruled accidents related to drug intoxication. The mortality rate in Philadelphia prisons is now more than double the most recent national average reported by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The violence in Philadelphia’s jails stems in part from an unnecessarily high number of people in custody coupled with a dire staffing shortage that has worsened as the virus-infected corrections officers and increasingly dangerous conditions have led hundreds to resign. According to the city controller, the jail system is now 582 officers short of safe staffing levels. At the same time, court hearings are being delayed due to COVID infections, keeping more people in jail for longer amounts of time.
This combination of too many people in custody and too few staff have led to unchecked violence as well as prolonged lockdowns that can keep incarcerated people isolated in their cells for days at a time, straining their mental health.
While Philadelphia's conditions are extreme, it is not the only county struggling with the fallout of overpopulated and understaffed jails. Staff vacancies in Lancaster and Northumberland counties number 85 and 14, respectively, jail wardens told the Prison Society recently. In Lehigh County last year, an outbreak of COVID-19 stretched an overextended correctional staff even more thin, leading to allegations of poor disease control and extensive lockdowns.
Policymakers must renew their focus on decarceration when there are too few corrections officers and too many incarcerated people to maintain order. The emphasis on releasing more people who do not present a risk to public safety faded after the early stages of the pandemic, with jail populations increasing again last year.
Moving into 2022, our work shining a light on these issues continues at a time when incarcerated people and corrections officers still face dangers to their health and safety daily.
The Prison Society once again calls on all state and county officials to: