We are in the darkest days of the pandemic for people in prisons and those who care for them.
An average of one person a day died of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania state prisons during the last two weeks of November. Thirty-five people in custody have now died since the beginning of the pandemic, a number that has more than tripled since mid-October. Eight of these fatalities occurred at State Correctional Institution at Laurel Highlands. which houses elderly and medically frail individuals. The prison’s high-risk population is suffering the state prison system’s worst coronavirus outbreak to date, in which more than half of people in custody have tested positive. Not all the people who died in Laurel Highlands were elderly; one was only 36 years old.
On Sunday, a corrections officer at the Delaware County jail died of COVID-19 after 35 years of service. It was the jail’s first COVID-19 fatality, and the seventh statewide among people confined to or working in county jails, by our count.
We continue to mourn the loss of so many lives, and offer our condolences to their families and loved ones. Our hearts also go out to the thousands of people worried about loved ones in prison.
Relentless surge in state prisons
The coronavirus continues its relentless surge in jails and prisons, just as it does outside their walls. Over 1,600 people in custody in state prisons are currently infected with the coronavirus, along with nearly 600 Department of Corrections staff. Since we noted the first signs of the fall resurgence in prisons in October, the number of people in custody testing positive for COVID-19 has quadrupled, while infections among staff have tripled. These outbreaks also continue to strain the psychological health of people in custody. Enhanced quarantines on cell blocks where people test positive have kept many confined to their cells for more than 23 hours a day and limited their access to the video and phone calls that have been their only connection with family for the past 8 months.
More county jails report infections
The numbers above don’t even include county jails. The outbreak at Delaware County’s jail that took the life of the corrections officer has also infected 17 people in custody. We’ve also learned that two more county jails—Mifflin and Tioga—have had coronavirus cases, bringing the total to 30 counties reporting confirmed infections. In Mifflin County, which currently has the state’s second highest infection rate, the warden told us that, on average, 10 to 15 percent of staff are infected at any given time. We continue to follow the spread in county jails in our COVID-19 tracking map.
It’s time for urgent action to release more people in custody
These dark days are a piercing alarm for more urgent action to mitigate the spread of the virus and prevent more people from dying. Pennsylvania’s efforts to release vulnerable people from incarceration have fallen far short. Releases under the governor’s reprieve program stalled months ago, and the state has reduced its prison population by less than half of the number officials said was necessary to mitigate the pandemic. Other states have done better. New Jersey passed legislation in November that led to the release of 2,000 incarcerated people, and the state has managed to reduce its prison population by 35 percent compared to Pennsylvania’s 11 percent.
Once again, we call on all county and state officials to: