COVID-19 ALERTS: Sign up for a free weekly email with the latest data customized to your county.
Map of latest Pa. coronavirus cases, county-by-county numbers
Coronavirus

Gov. Tom Wolf will temporarily release Pa. state inmates as legislative effort falls apart

by |

The move comes two weeks after the first coronavirus case was reported at SCI Phoenix in Montgomery County, where 11 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19.
Commonwealth Media Services

Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and PennLive/Patriot-News. Sign up for our free weekly newsletter.

HARRISBURG — In a drastic reversal, Gov. Tom Wolf on Friday announced he will grant temporary reprieves to non-violent state inmates due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The plan could affect up to 1,800 incarcerated persons, though Wolf’s office said the number will likely be lower due to “reentry challenges.”

After initially resisting calls to grant reprieves, the administration changed course after lawmakers failed to move forward with a GOP plan to release no more than 450 of the state’s nearly 45,000 inmates.

Speaking to reporters Friday, Wolf said he tried to work with the legislature, but they couldn’t come to an agreement.

“There is a premium on speed here. We need to move quickly,” Wolf said. “I communicated and worked as much as I could, and in the absence of the ability to do that, I’m going to be doing this on my own.”

The decision applies to state prison inmates who have been identified as being “non-violent and who otherwise would be eligible for release within the next 9 months or who are considered at high risk for complications of coronavirus and are within 12 months of their release.”

In a statement, Wolf said the reprieve program will “leave fewer inmates at risk for contracting COVID-19 while maintaining public safety.”

The move comes two weeks after the first coronavirus case was reported at SCI Phoenix in Montgomery County, where 11 inmates have now tested positive for COVID-19.

The Wolf administration said releases could begin as early as Tuesday. The inmates who are released “will be monitored similarly to parolees and will be supervised by parole agents.”

“Upon expiration of the order, individuals would be returned to prison to complete any remaining portion of their sentences,” according to a statement.

Advocates lauded the decision but called for further measures, including identifying elderly and vulnerable people not covered by the current reprieve order.

“This is an excellent first step by Gov. Wolf,” Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said in a statement. “It must not be the last step.”

The governor faced a difficult political choice in deciding whether to unilaterally grant reprieves or work through the legislature, analysts said, since consequences fall on his shoulders should something go wrong. Legislative action, however, required dealmaking with Republican leadership.

Some worried Thursday that time was running out to protect vulnerable inmates, as lawmakers failed to strike a deal to provide for the release of inmates and Wolf refused to act on his own.

“Disaster, catastrophe, perhaps the word apocalypse goes too far,” Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said Thursday, describing the consequences if Wolf did not grant the reprieves.

“I’m not trying to be glib, but the reality is that these prisons and these jails are the equivalent of senior living, the equivalent of cruise ships, where you can have a wild outbreak of [COVID-19] and no matter how hard you try, they are not cut off from the rest of society,” Krasner said.

As of Friday morning, SCI Phoenix remained the lone state prison with reported inmate cases, as the Department of Corrections continued to stave off the feared viral surge — at least for now. In addition to the 11 inmates, six employees at the facility have also tested positive for the virus.

“It happened early, but we’re doing enough of the right things to mean it’s not as bad as it could be yet, and we have to keep doing those things to stay the course,” said state Rep. Joe Webster (D., Montgomery), whose district includes the two-year-old facility.

Officials have stopped “unnecessary inmate movement,” laundry service, and production of prisoner-made items deemed non-vital, corrections spokesperson Maria Finn said in an email. Other measures include “enhanced cleaning” and screening of everyone who enters the facility.

The department stopped all new commitments and transfers to SCI Phoenix on March 13, and the facility has outpaced all other state prisons in decreasing population since last month.

As of Friday morning, SCI Phoenix’s population was at 3,139, down 59 prisoners from March. Data shows 31 of them have left since last week.

It is unclear how the virus entered the facility, but officials believe it was through either a visitor of a staff member, Finn said. The facility has 1,200 full-time employees.

Webster, the prison’s state representative, said he was told in a briefing that the first prisoner who tested positive was 12 days from his last visit by the time the test results came back. The cases span several housing units, he said, according to those briefings.

“This area of Montgomery County has been hard hit pretty early,” Webster said. “It’s managed its way into SCI Phoenix, and I’m concerned that we’re going to see a similar scenario elsewhere in the commonwealth.”

The facility is located about 50 miles northwest of Philadelphia, in a part of the state that has been hit particularly hard by the virus and early relative to other counties.

Many of the corrections officers live in the Philadelphia area and have been conscious about taking precautions to avoid bringing the virus into the prison, said Larry Blackwell, head of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association. That’s averted a surge in cases, he said.

“I think they’ve held steady because we ask our people if you’re feeling sick, to stay home, and the precautions we’re taking coming into the facility,” Blackwell said. “I think that has to be it.”

100% ESSENTIAL: Spotlight PA provides its journalism at no cost to newsrooms across the state as a public good to keep our communities informed and thriving. If you value this service, please give a gift today at spotlightpa.org/donate.

Photo of Matt McKinney

Matt McKinney