Data: Most Pa. inmates eligible for reprieve remain in state prisons

In April, Gov. Tom Wolf said up to 1,800 inmates statewide were eligible; 151 inmates were given temporary reprieve


By Megan Guza
The Tribune-Review

MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Pa. — With more than 1,500 Pennsylvania prison inmates eligible for temporary reprieve, records show only about 10% have been granted it despite concerns over prisons becoming coronavirus hot spots because of their close quarters and the highly infectious nature of the virus.

Gov. Tom Wolf in early April said 1,500 to 1,800 inmates statewide were eligible, though he noted re-entry challenges meant many of those inmates would remain behind bars. Even so, only 151 eligible inmates have been given the temporary reprieve, according to the Department of Corrections, which releases the inmate for home monitoring for the duration of Wolf’s disaster declaration.

“The need to reduce the population is driven by its need to ensure social distancing in facilities,” Department of Corrections spokeswoman Maria Finn said. “Such (social distancing) efforts are challenging at older prisons based on centuries-old prison designs and at facilities with dormitory-style housing, including community corrections.”

The temporary reprieve program applies only to inmates deemed nonviolent who already were scheduled for release in the next nine months or, for those considered highly vulnerable to the virus, 12 months.

Finn said the department is running into a problem in which inmates who are eligible for parole hearings can’t get a hearing because of parole board vacancies.

Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel had billed the program as one that would save lives, saying that without the temporary program, “we are risking the health, and potentially lives, of employees and inmates.”

Three state prison inmates have died from covid-19. All three were incarcerated at SCI-Phoenix in Montgomery County, where 34 inmates and 67 employees have tested positive for the virus.

Across the state prison system, 211 inmates and 148 employees have contracted the virus. Fewer than 500 inmates and 400 employees have been tested. There are 42,893 people incarcerated in state prisons, according to the Department of Corrections.

Finn said the state prison population is down by nearly 2,400 since March 1. Other coronavirus-related measures, such as looking at parole possibilities and reviewing inmates who are beyond their minimum sentences, have helped reduce the population.

“Despite this population decline, which is the largest two-month period reduction ever experienced by the DOC, we need to further reduce in the inmate and center populations,” Finn said.

The effort to reduce the prison population started long before the pandemic, she said, and it needs to continue after as “it is possible that we will see a resurgence of the virus this fall.”

None of the released inmates has been from Allegheny County, according to DOC records, although 33 have been eligible. Seven had minimum sentences that were up in April.

Mike Manko, spokesman for Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., said his office reviewed those 33 cases and opposed the release of four inmates.

Manko noted that “the opinion we give can include telling DOC that we do not have enough information on the inmate’s rehabilitation programs and activities while incarcerated to make a recommendation.”

Of those 33 inmates from Allegheny County, 14 were serving sentences for drug charges and seven were for driving under the influence. Eight were incarcerated for burglary charges, three for theft-related charges and one for ethnic intimidation.

One inmate sentenced in Allegheny County, a 56-year-old man, is serving a three- to six-year sentence for theft by deception and failure to perform services paid for.

Fourteen eligible inmates were sentenced in Westmoreland County, according to the data. None has been granted a reprieve. Five are serving drug sentences and two are serving DUI sentences. Four are incarcerated for burglary and two for theft. One man is serving a sentence for criminal trespass.

Congregate living situations such as jails and prisons have become covid-19 hot spots because of the tight quarters and the infectious nature of the virus. Outbreaks and the realization that many can have the virus but show no symptoms have prompted some states to begin mass testing inmates in their state prison systems.

In Ohio, nearly 4,450 inmates across state prisons had tested positive for the virus as of Wednesday — that’s more than half of the 7,541 who have been tested so far — and 51 have died. There are about 49,000 inmates across Ohio’s 28 prison facilities.

Arkansas and Tennessee also have begun mass testing, according to Reuters, as have Michigan and California. In most states, including Pennsylvania, only inmates who show symptoms are being tested.

Across the federal prison system, more than 2,800 inmates have tested positive for the virus, including at least 76 at FCI-Elkton in Lisbon, Ohio, near the Pennsylvania border. Fifty-one federal inmates across the country have died from the virus.

By May 6, at least 20,119 inmates in the United States had tested positive for covid-19, according to The Marshall Project, a nonprofit online news outlet focusing on criminal justice. That was nearly a 40% increase in cases compared to the previous week.

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©2020 The Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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