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Coronavirus

Pa. prisons don’t always tell families when inmates are sick. Officials are defending that policy.

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The Department of Corrections will not release the health status of inmates to family members unless they are listed as the emergency contact in documents that in some cases are as old as when the inmate was first incarcerated.
DAVID SWANSON / File Photograph

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HARRISBURG — The state Department of Corrections has doubled down on its policy not to always inform families of inmates who are sickened or killed by the coronavirus, saying it’s the responsibility of inmates to ensure their emergency contacts are complete and accurate.

Last month, a Spotlight PA report found that while the department has the power to decide when to release medical information, some family members of those who are incarcerated said they were kept in the dark as their loved ones fell ill and, in some cases, died.

Nonprofit organizations and attorneys point to a waiver issued by the federal government in March that gave hospitals the discretion to release such information to family and friends during a public health emergency. But the department said that waiver doesn’t apply to prisons.

In a post to its website this month, the department said it will only release information to a single person listed as an emergency contact, regardless of whether that person is a family member or “next of kin,” which is the typical process for authorities to notify a family of a death.

“So, when you see reports or accounts that an inmate’s family wasn’t notified of an illness or death, this could be the rational explanation,” the department wrote, adding that prisoners can fill out additional paperwork to authorize the release of their information to a second person.

For many inmates, however, their emergency contact information is as old as when they received it, which was the day they were imprisoned. And families and prison rights groups said the department is not doing enough to inform prisoners about the importance of updating their information.

“If the DOC seeks to follow the procedures that they just posted on their website relating to who is notified in case of a medical emergency, then they should proactively make that information known broadly to every incarcerated person in their care, so that people can plan ahead accordingly,” said Su Ming Yeh, executive director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project.

Briana Hafiz, whose father-in-law, Abdul Rashid Hafiz, is incarcerated at SCI-Dallas, said she and her family have been trying to get information on the status of Abdul since the beginning of the year, when they last heard from him.

They only learned he may have had a stroke through other inmates. When she approached the department, prison officials told her she was not listed as an emergency contact and they would not release any information to her.

“We got no specifics on what his cognition level was, or if he was even walking,” Briana Hafiz said. “The only reason why we knew of the stroke was because a friend of the family also has a father who’s an inmate at the prison.”

Abdul Hafiz’s partner, who did not want to be named, said she was listed as his emergency contact when he was first incarcerated over 30 years ago. But the department said she was not the contact now, and it would not tell the family who is listed, if anyone.

When asked about the situation, a DOC spokesperson, Maria Bivens, said, “It would appear in this case, the one person who is the emergency contact for the inmate has not passed on any information to others — we can’t control that.”

Bivens said inmates have the ability to update their medical forms whenever they want, and the department won’t release medical information otherwise, claiming it would violate a federal medical privacy statute, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

“The only person the DOC can release information to about an inmate is the person the inmate identified,” the department posted on its website. “This can cause problems when, for example, the inmate’s girlfriend is the emergency contact. Only she would be notified. The inmate’s mother, brother, or uncle would not. It depends on who the inmate provided to DOC officials.”

In March, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a memo that allowed medical staff to release basic information — location, status of the patient, and treatment — as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The same guidance was issued during Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina.

While some attorneys and nonprofit groups believe that guidance gives the department leeway to be more flexible, others say it’s a stretch to lump prisons in with hospitals, even if they have medical facilities.

Families of inmates and prisoner advocates said not enough is being done to inform inmates of the need to update forms in case they get the coronavirus. Since March, at least 8,000 inmates among the overall population of 40,000 have contracted COVID-19, with 85 deaths as of Friday.

Those groups also wonder why the department cannot help inmates update medical information, similar to the way it managed federal stimulus checks. In October, the department was praised for passing off paperwork to nearly 40,000 prisoners to register for their money.

“If the DOC has shown that they can go cell-to-cell and get important [stimulus] documentation completed, they should be lauded for it,” said Claire Shubik-Richards, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, the state’s unofficial ombudsman for prisoners and their families. “That level of competency means they could go cell-to-cell and get people to think about who they want notified, and also afford the opportunity list more than one name.”

Even if inmates end up needing hospital care, families still face a brick wall. That’s because hospitals, which usually notify next of kin or a power of attorney, will not release any information about inmates unless the Corrections Department gives them authorization.

Briana Hafiz said she called Wilkes-Barre General, owned by Commonwealth Health, which has at least four hospitals that treat inmates. The hospital is the closest location to SCI-Dallas, and she figured her father-in-law would be there.

“They still don’t release information anyway,” she said. “If you call and ask for information, they don’t even tell you if he’s there.”

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