Pennsylvania Should Expand Its Temporary Release Program to Prevent Coronavirus Outbreaks in Prisons

I wrote this opinion piece for a Pennsylvania newspaper in April 2020. However, it still hasn’t been published and I’m starting to think its gotten lost in the mass of COVID-19 opinion pieces that were submitted. So I’m sharing it here before it gets too out of date, and I’ll take it down if it is ever published.

In recent months we’ve seen the number of coronavirus cases in Pennsylvania rise steadily each day. As the epidemic unfolds, we’re also seeing clear signs that the prison system is one of its focal points. Crowded facilities, difficulty keeping shared spaces sanitary, and shortages of personal protective equipment have already led to outbreaks around the country.

However, this isn’t the first time that Pennsylvania’s prisons and the people who live and work in them have had a deadly epidemic loom before them.

A century ago Farview State Hospital was a state-of-the-art facility prison facility just over twenty miles northeast of Scranton. As the state’s only facility for the “criminally insane,” its inmate population came from all corners of Pennsylvania. When the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 hit Pennsylvania, Farview’s administration followed the lead of other prisons in the state and closed its doors. Staff and inmates were put under strict quarantine. But still the epidemic found its way inside Farview’s walls.

In a matter of weeks, Farview was devastated by the Spanish Flu. Hundreds of inmates lay sick and dying in the hospital wards, as were many guards and support staff. When one of the institution’s few physicians perished from the disease, the panicked superintendent begged a detachment of state police troopers to run the prison. “Deaths occurred daily,” one trooper later reported, “practically the entire working force of the [institution] was disabled by the plague and the bulk of the responsibilities were borne by the State Police detail.” By the end of the year 360 of 600 inmates had contracted influenza and 63 ultimately died. Farview’s mortality rate, 17.5%, was horrific. Compared to the national Spanish Flu mortality rate of roughly 2.5%, it was catastrophic.

Despite taking precautions and quarantining its inmates and staff, Farview’s experience is a chilling memorial to the impact epidemics can have in our prisons.

Today, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections is responsible for over 45,000 inmates in 24 institutions across the state. It also employs around 15,000 staff at these institutions. By necessity, many are in close contact every day.

Outbreaks of coronavirus have already exploded in prison systems across the United States, notably Rikers Island in New York and Cook County Jail in Illinois. As of April 13th, 19 staff and 14 inmates have tested positive for coronavirus in seven state prisons in Pennsylvania. And on April 14th one man incarcerated at SCI Phoenix has tragically succumbed to the virus. [NOTE: As of May 15, 2020 155 staff and 211 inmates in the PA state prison system have tested positive and three inmates died after testing positive]

Such a deadly and unprecedented epidemic requires a concerted effort to protect the people in Pennsylvania’s prisons, both those who are incarcerated there and those who work in them. I applaud Governor Wolf’s decision last week to begin a temporary program to release nonviolent inmates eligible for release within nine months and inmates considered high-risk for contracting coronavirus within 12 months of release. But the work does not end here.

This temporary reprieve program is projected to affect 1,500 to 1,800 inmates, less than five percent of the total population in Pennsylvania’s state prisons. But its likely that far fewer inmates will actually be released through the current plan as its reentry requirements will prevent many eligible inmates without housing and food security or who have issues connecting with health care and behavioral health services.

I urge Governor Wolf, the Department of Corrections, and the General Assembly to expand temporary release criteria to include more vulnerable inmates in Pennsylvania including the elderly, pregnant women, and those who are immunocompromised or have chronic medical conditions that place them at higher risk for coronavirus complications. Inmates eligible for release also need support to ensure that they will meet reentry requirements and can actually be released.

Because physical distancing inside a correctional facility is nearly impossible, reducing the prison population is a critical step in preventing an outbreak.

Farview’s inability to protect its inmates and staff from the Spanish Flu remind us of what’s at risk when an epidemic strikes in a prison. We must do everything we can to protect everyone in our state prisons and the communities surrounding them.

Coronavirus has already breached the walls of Pennsylvania’s prisons. We do not want the people inside to suffer like Farview.

Farview 10
An inmate ward at Farview State Hospital c. 1915. Pennsylvania State Archives.

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