State prison reorganization stokes anxiety for those with incarcerated loved ones

Originally published Dec. 11, 2020 for The PLS Reporter, behind a paywall. 

In the last week, six Pennsylvania prisons have reported their first COVID-19-related deaths, as case counts rise not only in the prison system, but the entire state. Amidst the surging pandemic, the Department of Corrections announced Friday a reorganization plan that they claim could improve mitigation efforts.

Over 13 days, the department will change the role of SCI Smithfield to a central reception facility for new male inmates and those who violate parole. The facility will also operate a regional infirmary for male inmates who do not have COVID-19. Transfers will occur between facilities, both to make room for the new role of Smithfield and to maximize bed space throughout the system.

Maria Bivens, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, said that the department is determining transfers using both the usual “complex and comprehensive system” for transfers and based on the type of housing units available in different facilities, as some layouts can better achieve social distancing goals.

“We are able to make these moves because, since March 2020, we have seen a nearly 6,000 decrease in the state prison inmate population – allowing us some room to move inmates.”

Bivens said that at this point, the department cannot say whether inmates will return to an institution they were previously housed at after pandemic protocols are no longer necessary. She also said that inmates and loved ones are historically not given prior notice of transfers.

The change to Smithfield includes implementing a new de-escalation and communication program for those who enter the facility and opening a 25-bed infirmary for non-COVID-19 patients, allowing other state prison infirmaries to focus their facilities on COVID-19 treatments.

For the families of incarcerate people, this large movement of people is frightening. Faith Adams is a mother to a man serving life in Smithfield and said she worries about her son. Her contact with him has been limited, as he only gets 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the afternoon to shower, use the phone or do whatever other business he needs to, but she says she almost prefers that he’s locked down, so he’s not as in imminent danger of the virus. She heard about the reorganization plan before it was announced, and is concerned about what it could mean for her son and others in the system.

“We got wind of it a few weeks ago. We’ve been trying to find out why they will be even considering moving that amount of inmates during a global pandemic and a pandemic that is running through the state facilities like wildfire. It’s an uncertain and scary time for everyone, not just those that are incarcerated, but for family members,” Adams said.

She is part of the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration (CADBI) in Pennsylvania, an organization that advocates against life sentences and has, throughout the pandemic, been calling on Gov. Tom Wolf and the legislature to make reforms to the prison system to protect inmates from COVID-19. Her biggest concern, she says, is the lack of a testing requirement for employees in the corrections system.

“The reality of it is, just like anybody out here, that’s their livelihood — if they’re not working, they can’t take care of their family,” Adams said. “So I believe that there are some who work in spite of knowing that they may not have felt well, or they couldn’t be made to take an actual test to be able to tell whether or not they will bring that into the facility. It’s really careless on their part, because it’s like they don’t view our loved ones as human, or as having a right to be okay.”

The Department of Corrections uses what they call enhanced employee screening for those entering the facilities, which involves a temperature check and questionnaire. Employees can request tests from the facility or on their own, and prison staff work in zones that do not cross over as a way to minimize risk. If an individual doesn’t pass the screening, they are required to quarantine at home and can only return to work once cleared by a doctor. Bevins said this policy also applies to transport staff.

Inmates who are transferred are required to receive a negative test before being moved and quarantine for 14 days upon their arrival in a new facility.

“This smart plan will address a number of operational issues we have been experiencing,” Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel said in a statement announcing the reorganization. “We will ensure that staff has appropriate personal protective equipment, because these individuals could be asymptomatic for COVID-19, and we always err on the side of caution.”

In March, before the first COVID-19 case arrived in the state’s prisons, the state corrections officers’ union called for a stop to transfers to prevent spreading the virus between facilities. Transfers decreased significantly but didn’t entirely stop. Throughout the pandemic, 10,042 tests have been administered for the purpose of transfers; 4.01 percent, or 127, of those have been positive.

With this new wave of movement, another mother and organizer with CADBI, Lorraine Haw — who also goes by Ms. Dee-Dee — is concerned about the way the virus will spread.

“What’s the rush in doing it now, when there’s other prisons out there that’s COVID high? Why would you move them from where there’s only so much COVID in here, then you’re sending them to these places — you’re sending them to their death,” she said. “I’m not understanding what is so important that they have to make a move right now. Can’t they wait two or three months for this to die down, and people have vaccines so everything can be okay, and then they can be moved?”

According to the Department of Corrections’ COVID-19 Dashboard, there are currently 2,501 active inmate positives and 1,116 active staff positives. The dashboard shows 39 inmate deaths and two staff deaths. Nearly 60 percent of positive COVID-19 results in facilities have been found through surveillance testing, and 28 percent of positives are among those who are symptomatic.

Both mothers and their organizations have been calling on state lawmakers to decrease populations in state prisons, not just through various diversion methods that Corrections officials say have reduced populations by nearly 6,000, but also by offering parole to those most susceptible to the illness.

Similarly, the Pennsylvania chapter of Families Against Mandatory Minimums has been lobbying the legislature for some time to introduce stronger release options for the elderly and medically vulnerable. Celeste Trusty, Policy Director for FAMM PA, said that outside of gubernatorial reprieve powers and the boards of pardons and parole, there are limited mechanisms for getting people out of prisons.

“I don’t know if there’s any perfect response to this other than, again, depopulating, and unfortunately until our legislature takes action on being able to depopulate, unless our governor expands the reprieve order to include people who are medically vulnerable and older, you know, [DOC] is kind of stuck and have to do what they’re able to do,” Trusty said. “It’s unfortunate, obviously, it’s disruptive to people to have to up and move, especially in the middle of a pandemic. But at the same time, you know, these facilities have to find ways to help mitigate and stop what we worry is going to be the worst-case scenario.”

In April, Gov. Tom Wolf introduced a temporary reprieve program for which 1,200-1,800 people were considered eligible; to date, only 108 have actually been released on reprieve. Both Trusty and the organizers with CADBI found that program too narrow, and would like to see greater action from lawmakers to take vulnerable individuals out of harm’s way in the prisons.

“We have to reach out to all these legislators, because we have to get some of these laws changed,” Ms. Dee-Dee said. “We really do. Because like I said, yeah, they did a crime, they did their time. How long is this punishment? I mean, isn’t it called the Department of Corrections, not the Department of Punishment forever and ever?”