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From the archives 2020

With thousands of Pa. prisoners in near-solitary confinement, how long can coronavirus lockdown last?

by Matt McKinney of Spotlight PA |

SCI Phoenix, in hard-hit Montgomery County, was the first state prison to report a case. Since then, it has tallied 34 reported cases and three deaths among inmates, and 67 cases among employees.
Samantha Melamed / Philadelphia Inquirer

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HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s state prisons continue to operate under tight restrictions to guard against widespread coronavirus surges, suspending in-person visits, serving inmates meals only in their cells, and limiting movement to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

While those steps appear to have helped the state Department of Corrections avert a worst-case scenario, in which the virus ravages its facilities — at least so far — another challenge looms: How long can indefinite lockdowns last without consequences?

Advocates have widely praised the department’s efforts to protect prisoners and staff from the virus, but concerns persist about the coming weeks and months should statewide inmate quarantines continue indefinitely, a near-certainty in some areas as the pandemic drags on.

“We don’t fully know what the impacts are of having tens of thousands of people effectively in an extended form of solitary confinement, and we just don’t know how manageable it is,” said Sean Damon, organizing director at Amistad Law Project, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that advocates for incarcerated people.

“Our fear is that this is going to have huge mental health impacts on the people that are on the extended lockdown,” he said, noting the possibility of an increase in suicides or general unrest.

As of Thursday, 23 of the state’s 25 prisons had one or fewer reported cases, according to department data. But the two outliers reflect the explosive nature of the virus and how quickly reported cases can skyrocket.

SCI Huntingdon, in rural central Pennsylvania, has reported 144 cases among inmates and 40 among staff. SCI Phoenix, in hard-hit Montgomery County, was the first state prison to report a case. Since then, it has tallied 34 reported cases and three deaths among inmates, and 67 cases among employees.

Claire Shubik-Richards, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, said incarcerated people surveyed by her organization have generally given the department high marks for its response to the virus. They commend officials for boosting access to in-cell television programming, increasing commissary funding, and allowing regular video calls. She credited the department for transparency and steps taken to keep facilities clean.

“We’ve confirmed that the DOC really has uniformly implemented [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines on hand washing and cleaning, and that’s a big feat for 25 facilities housing 43,000 people in close quarters,” she said.

“At the same time … living in lockdown is extremely trying,” she said.

Kris Henderson, executive director of the Amistad Law Project, said the organization has heard from incarcerated people “really suffering” the effects of the lockdown, from anxieties over contracting the virus to those struggling to get access to a single-person-capacity cell.

“It’s not great for anyone to be in a small room with another person for 23 hours a day,” Henderson said. “I think even those of us out in the community who are either alone or with one or a couple of loved ones are seeing how difficult it can be to be living with this new way of life.”

Henderson’s organization is also calling for greater use of reprieves to reduce prison populations as a means of mental and physical “harm reduction.”

After legislative efforts to reduce prison populations stalled in April, Gov. Tom Wolf announced plans to grant temporary coronavirus-related reprieves to nonviolent state inmates. The administration said up to 1,800 incarcerated people could qualify, although the number would likely be much smaller because of “reentry challenges.”

As of Thursday, 133 prisoners had received reprieves, according to department data.

If conditions remain stable at facilities in regions less impacted by the virus, Shubik-Richards, of the Prison Society, says the department should allow incarcerated people more leeway.

“As Gov. Wolf moves to ease some restrictions somewhat in some parts of the state, we would hope that some restrictions are eased in those facilities located in those regions as well, because it is really, really, really trying to live 23 hours a day in a cell,” Shubik-Richards said.

“For mental health and maintaining a manageable culture and environment, it’s really important that people can move beyond one hour a day outside a cell.”

Maria Finn, a spokesperson for the department, said officials are working on a plan to lighten inmate quarantine measures that would “generally align with the governor’s overall plan.”

Rep. Rob Kauffman (R., Franklin), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said it appears the department has so far done a “fantastic job” of mitigating the spread of the virus. But easing lockdown restrictions for prisoners pales in comparison to concerns he has about others who may be struggling.

“My concern when it comes to those kinds of issues,” he said, “would be more along the lines of, I’m concerned about our seniors who are feeling abandoned in nursing care facilities and law-abiding citizens who are feeling the emotional effects of the lockdown in society as well.”

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