Our latest survey provides a unique, statewide picture of conditions in county jails as they continue to recover from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the first data measuring the scope of the staffing crisis in the commonwealth’s jails.
The Prison Society called all 62 Pennsylvania county jails in July and August of this year to ask about staffing levels, access to in-person visits, and progress restoring programming, among other issues. We found:
Seven county jails reported not having resumed any programming, and 18 were still working to restore some programs that existed prior to the pandemic.
To help meet local communities’ need for information about these often-opaque facilities, we are publishing the raw, county-by-county data collected from the 56 jails that completed the survey. Find out more about your local jail HERE.
“You can't address problems you don't know about, and Pennsylvania communities too often can’t find out what’s going on in their local jail,” said Prison Society Executive Director Claire Shubik-Richards. “Staffing shortages make it harder to keep people who live and work in prisons safe. We also found that counties are struggling to provide needed rehabilitative services in the pandemic's wake.”
Jails struggle to hire, with some severely understaffed
The COVID-19 pandemic caused radical disruptions to daily life in prisons and jails, and incarcerated people are still weathering the ripple effects. Many jails that were already struggling to hire and retain enough corrections officers have seen staffing shortages worsen under the increased demands of working during the pandemic. These shortages have been implicated in increased violence and a surge of deaths in county jails since the pandemic. In some jails, they have led to extended periods of isolation for incarcerated people who are confined to their cells for days at a time. Programming and visiting have also been slow to return, with ongoing pandemic restrictions limiting movement and opportunities for rehabilitation.
A total of 43 Pennsylvania county jails provided data on staffing levels in the Prison Society’s survey. In addition to the 20 jails that were at least 10 percent short on full-time corrections officers, six counties had shortages of 25 percent or more: Tioga, Chester, Bedford, Beaver, Lycoming, and Venango. Some jails that were not short on full-time staffers nevertheless reported difficulties hiring part-time workers. Thirteen jails refused to provide staffing data.
One Western PA jail said it will never bring back in-person visits
While the majority of county jails surveyed reported being open for in-person visits, many of them said there were still additional restrictions on visiting in place. Some reported that visits would be suspended during ongoing outbreaks of coronavirus, or that availability was more limited. In-person visits are important for maintaining bonds with children and family members, and research has found that increasing the number of visitors and the frequency of visits is associated with lower rates of recidivism. Despite these well-documented benefits, one of the jails that has not resumed in-person visits, Greene County Prison, said it would never bring them back. Instead, visitors who travel to the jail are only allowed a video call with the incarcerated person from a separate room.
Opportunities for rehabilitation still limited
Programming, too, was more limited, though it had begun to return in most jails. More than a third of jails that had resumed programs—which can include things like GED courses, peer support groups, and religious services—were still working to bring some back online. A handful of counties—including Armstrong, Crawford, Lackawanna, Lycoming, McKean, Montour, and Montgomery—still had not resumed programming at the time of the survey.
In an effort to address the ongoing need for information about local jails, the Prison Society will continue surveying all of Pennsylvania’s 62 county jails on a quarterly basis and share their responses with the public.