November 19, 2020

People in prison are in more danger from COVID-19 than ever before
Pennsylvania’s new wave of coronavirus has spread faster and been even more deadly in prisons.

Pennsylvania’s new wave of coronavirus has spread faster and been even more deadly in prisons.

Since just last week, 4 people in state custody and 1 Pennsylvania Department of Corrections staff member have succumbed to the virus. Three of the deaths occurred at SCI Dallas, where there are currently 45 people in custody and 77 staff testing positive for COVID-19. Another was in the state’s facility for the medically frail, SCI Laurel Highlands, where 285 of its vulnerable people in custody are still fighting active cases of the virus, including 13 who are hospitalized.

Our condolences go out to the families and friends of these people who have lost their lives working in or while confined to Pennsylvania prisons.

Our hearts also go out to the thousands of families worried about their loved ones in prison.

PA State Prisons: Cases Rising Three Times as Fast as in the Community

Cases are climbing nearly three times as fast in state prisons compared to the general population in Pennsylvania. Over the past month, total cases have grown 134 percent in prisons, compared to 46 percent in the state as a whole. Coronavirus deaths in prisons have risen more than six times as fast.

Since we first highlighted the resurgence a month ago, the total number of COVID-19 cases in state prisons has more than doubled; as of this writing, there are 1,075 active infections among people in custody and staff members—more than the total number of cases over the entire pandemic a month ago. Eight more people who live or work in state prisons have died from COVID-19, a 64 percent increase in just one month.

County Prisons: Hidden Spread

Eight county prisons have reported new COVID-19 cases in the past month. The actual number could be higher because counties are not required to publicly report infections, and sometimes delay reporting them by a week or more. Some may never publicly report infections at all, meaning that the spread of the coronavirus in county jails is partially hidden from public view.

Among jails with new outbreaks was Huntingdon County Jail, where more than half of the jail population of 35 tested positive for the coronavirus after everyone in custody was transferred to Centre County, as the jail lacked the ability to quarantine sick residents. Clearfield County also reported its first case of COVID-19 in jail when an employee tested positive. Officials there had recently been concerned about how overcrowding left the jail vulnerable to a virulent outbreak. “We are setting ourselves up for a major problem if we don’t get this under control,” a county commissioner said.

Make no mistake—people in prisons are in greater danger from the coronavirus than ever before. The stark data from the past month demands that state and county officials renew efforts to release as many people in custody as they safely can. Efforts such as the governor’s temporary reprieve order, which has led to the release of only 153 medically vulnerable people in state prisons, have been inadequate to this historic crisis. More must be done, both to stem the virus’ increasingly rapid spread and to prevent a prison sentence from becoming a death sentence for an untold number of human beings who have no escape from the deadly virus. We call on all county and state officials to:

  • Expand and accelerate efforts to safely reduce the number of people in county and state facilities;
  • Implement weekly, rapid testing of all staff that come into contact with people in custody;
  • Require that every county publicly report prison testing results and virus-related deaths in custody;
  • Test and quarantine every new person entering custody; and
  • Eliminate the medical co-pay for accessing health care while in custody.

Sky Blue Heart
If you learned something from this supporter update, pay it forward with a donation. Your support makes our critical work to promote transparency and accountability in Pennsylvania prisons and jails possible.