The Prison Society’s advocacy on major issues affecting incarcerated people is gaining traction in Harrisburg.
In the Pennsylvania state house last week, lawmakers questioned the Department of Corrections about barriers to family visits, the problematic in-cell dining policy, the medical copay, and other issues affecting incarcerated people in state prisons. Governor Shaprio’s nominee to lead the DOC, Laurel Harry, gave testimony on these issues in the March 30 budget hearing. Lawmakers seized the opportunity to scrutinize the department’s priorities.
Kinkead questions lack of funding for family visits
The hearing kicked off with a question prompted by the Prison Society’s campaign to increase access to in-person family visits. Rep. Emily Kinkead (D-Allegheny County) asked why the department’s budget “zeroed out money to facilitate family members coming to visit in SCI facilities”–referring to the bus services to state prisons like the one formerly provided by the Prison Society. Harry cited data purporting to show that visits had more than tripled since the pandemic. But the data itself revealed that the vast majority of the visits were done virtually via Zoom–less than 10 percent were in-person. Rep. Kinkead, who is a Prison Society board member, commented on Harry’s apples and oranges comparison.
“Virtual visits are not a replacement in any way shape or form for in-person visitation, and we should not look at it as a one-to-one swap,” Kinkead said.
Harry cites flawed DOC survey to support in-cell dining policy
The department’s in-cell dining policy came into the spotlight when Rep. Gina Curry (D-Upper Darby) cited the Prison Society’s research on the issue. She mentioned the Prison Society’s finding that 73 percent of incarcerated people spend more money on food at the commissary since the DOC closed prison dining halls. Our survey also found that 62 percent of incarcerated people want to return to eating meals in dining halls.
Curry asked if incarcerated people had a say in whether meals will continue to be served in-cell. Harry said that the DOC had done its own survey that found 67 percent of incarcerated people would prefer to keep eating in their cells because it allows them to have more time out of their cells for the rest of the day. But she didn’t mention how the survey conflated the issue of out of cell time with dining preference, rather than measuring dining preference alone. The DOC’s single-question survey asked where incarcerated people prefer to eat, “Understanding that in cell/on unit feeding allows for increased out-of-cell time.”
Curry replied that she wanted to continue having discussions about the issue.
“Price gouging” at the commissary
Rep. Manuel Guzman Jr. (D-Reading) questioned Harry about inflation at prison commissaries that has far outpaced inflation. He asked what the department was doing to address these “overinflated prices.” Another DOC official responded that the department had already raised wages paid to incarcerated people for prison jobs by 20 percent, bringing the minimum wage to 23 cents an hour. Guzman did not seem satisfied with this response.
“It sounds to me like we’re price gouging our inmates and they currently only make 23 cents an hour,” he said.
Harry “open to discussion” on the medical copay
The wages made by incarcerated people also came up when Rep. Aerion Abney (D-Pittsburgh) asked about the department’s $5 copay for medical visits. “It’s a lot to ask someone to work that much to pay for a copay,” Abney said.
“We feel we really have a good balance with who should and shouldn’t pay a copay,” Harry said. She said eliminating the copay during the pandemic “clogged our system” with increased demand for medical visits and suggested that many of those visits were frivolous. Her answer didn’t address the reality that the copay acts as a barrier that deters incarcerated people from seeking needed health care. Harry said she was “open to discussion on this issue,” opening the door to new legislative efforts to eliminate the copay.
Next week, Harry will give testimony on the budget in the state senate. We will be watching for new developments on these issues.