October 21, 2021

The state of the pandemic in prisons
A spate of recent outbreaks shows that COVID-19 continues to threaten the safety of incarcerated people and correctional staff in Pennsylvania.

A spate of recent outbreaks shows that COVID-19 continues to threaten the safety of incarcerated people and correctional staff in Pennsylvania.

At least 15 county jails have had new infections in the past month, including three large outbreaks. An outbreak at Bradford County Prison has infected more than half of the incarcerated population, with 107 people in custody and 11 staff testing positive. The Warren County jail has had 45 people in custody test positive in recent days, and Pike County reported 28 new cases in its correctional facility this week.

Gaps in vaccination persist

Even as cases are beginning to fall nationally, the coronavirus is still spreading in Pennsylvania at around the highest level seen during the Delta surge. Insufficient vaccination rates in prisons and jails continue to leave them vulnerable to outbreaks, says Joe Amon, a clinical professor of community health and prevention at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health. The availability of COVID-19 vaccinations is still uncertain in 14 county jails that didn’t respond to the Prison Society’s latest round of calls.

"There isn’t really any question here that the way we get out of this pandemic is by having everyone vaccinated,” Amon tells the Prison Society. “We are going to continue to see outbreaks as long as people aren’t vaccinated and as long as we continue to have virus circulating."

More than half of the staff working in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections have still not been inoculated, two months after the state issued a mandate requiring them to get a shot or undergo weekly testing. Two counties, Allegheny and Bucks, have gone further and required county jail staff to get vaccinated or face termination. The union representing corrections officers in Allegheny County is suing to block the mandate, but a similar lawsuit challenging the DOC’s policy was recently dismissed.

The low rates of vaccination among corrections officers make it more likely they will carry the virus to and from prisons and the communities where they live. Currently, there are outbreaks infecting a dozen or more people in custody in several state prisons, despite the fact that over 90 percent of incarcerated people have been vaccinated. Although the vaccines are highly effective, the highly contagious Delta variant and the crowded, congregate living conditions mean vaccination alone isn’t always enough to stop the virus from spreading behind bars.

The protection offered by the initial round of vaccines may also be fading, Amon says, making booster shots a necessary component of protecting people in prisons going forward. The FDA today paved the way for all three vaccine brands to be given as boosters to people at high risk from COVID-19, regardless of which shot they got originally. But the CDC still has to weigh in with its own recommendations about how to use the booster doses, including who should get them and when. We are watching closely to see what these developments will mean for incarcerated people.

The Prison Society calls on all state and county officials to:

  • Expand efforts to safely reduce the number of people in custody;
  • Continue to offer COVID-19 vaccinations to all people in custody and staff in prisons and jails;
  • Implement weekly, rapid testing of all staff that come into contact with people in custody until they are vaccinated;    
  • 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.

We’re here to help.

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