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Deaths in Pa. state prisons spiked during pandemic

Plus, the latest primary election results.

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A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA

May 19, 2022 | spotlightpa.org
Governor picks, Yass money, mitigation measures, election results, unmarked postcards, prison deaths, hate crimes, marijuana arrest, and tolling plan pause.
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After a long primary season, Democrats and Republicans in Pennsylvania have picked their candidates for governor.

Doug Mastriano defeated the crowded GOP field, while Democrat Josh Shapiro ran unopposed. Angela Couloumbis and Stephen Caruso break down the candidates' backgrounds and what's a stake in November.

Caruso also has a deep dive into the primary spending of billionaire Jeff Yass, whose allies argue he is a single-issue donor who backs candidates who support alternatives to public schools. Critics, meanwhile, say Yass’ spending prioritizes peddling influence or inserting his ideology into both major parties.

Check spotlightpa.org in the coming days for more post-primary stories. 

Also this week, Danielle Ohl reports that some of the mitigation measures Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration implemented at state prisons to cut down on the spread of COVID-19 are still in place.

With nearly 90% of people held at state prisons vaccinated and cases significantly down, both incarcerated people and their advocates are asking the Department of Corrections to reassess restrictions that sacrifice quality of life and add financial hardship.
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"Breakfast(s) are usually already sitting on the block at count time — over an hour before they’re served."

—A person jailed at a state prison on a remaining coronavirus restriction that requires inmates to eat in their cells, rather than in a communal area
ABC 27: Austin Davis wins Democratic lt. gov. primary

ABC 27: Carrie Lewis DelRosso wins Republican lt. gov. primary

BILLY PENN: Prescod fails to unseat Williams in Senate 8th

MORNING CALL: Pat Browne in fight of his political life

WESA: Lee claims victory in congressional race; Irwin does not concede

WITF: Race to name Scott Perry’s Dem opponent too close to call
» Unmarked postcards sent to Pennsylvanians tell them ‘whether you vote is public record’

» Public database significantly undercounts former drug labs in Pa. Here’s why home buyers, renters should care.

» Candidates for governor raised $12.8M in April alone

» Spotlight PA wants your help flagging school health hazards

Deaths in Pa. state prisons spiked during the pandemic

Deaths in Pennsylvania state prisons reached a 10-year high in 2020 as COVID-19 swept through the state. The Department of Corrections recorded 202 health-related fatalities that year, a 54% increase from 2019.

Overall, Department of Corrections data obtained by Spotlight PA showed more than 2,000 people have died in state prisons due to a health condition since 2009. 

“Natural” deaths, which occur due to a health issue rather than suicide or homicide, are the leading cause of Pennsylvania prison fatalities, according to the data. And the leading illnesses that kill people on the outside largely match those behind bars: heart conditions, cancer, and late-stage organ diseases. 

While deaths increased during the pandemic, prison fatalities remained relatively stable in previous years, with an average of 144 natural deaths per year from 2009 to 2019.

Since the pandemic began, 166 incarcerated people and 12 staff members have died from COVID-19, according to Department of Corrections data. Our recent reporting found that some of the virus mitigation measures that Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration implemented are still in place despite concerns from incarcerated people and their advocates, who say the rules diminish quality of life.

More than 500 people, or roughly a quarter of all natural deaths in the past 13 years, were 70 years old or older. One man who died from dementia in 2014 was 96.

Most of the people who died were incarcerated at Laurel Highlands, the state’s prison for people who have long-term or complicated health conditions. And across the entire prison system, the vast majority of fatalities involved people age 55 or older. These people are considered to be “geriatric” in prison, where atypical living conditions age people faster than they would on the outside.

Spotlight PA requested the data in March following an investigation of the state’s broken “compassionate release” law. Pennsylvania’s medical release program provides people ailing in prison with a process to get out and receive better care or die at home with loved ones.

In the 13 years the law has been in effect, however, state prisons have released only 33 people using the process.

While the law has limitations, it remains one of the only avenues to freedom for the more than 2,000 people who are over 55 and serving life in Pennsylvania prisons.

Under state law, there are no parole opportunities for people serving life, even if they’re decades removed from the crime, sick, and determined to no longer be a danger to the public.

To be considered for release, Pennsylvania law requires a person to have less than a year to live or be terminally ill and unable to walk, so it’s unclear from the prison fatalities data alone how many people who have died since 2009 might have been eligible for release. Danielle Ohl, Spotlight PA

BALLOT BLITZ: PennLive reports thousands of GOP primary ballots have yet to be counted in the U.S. Senate race, with the top two vote-getters, David McCormick and Mehmet Oz, separated by less than 2,000 votes. Recounts are automatically triggered in statewide races when two top candidates are separated by less than 0.5% of the overall vote. The Inquirer says such recounts have been triggered six times since a law was enacted in 2004. Here's what to expect if it happens again.

SIEGE SPOTS: Dawn Bancroft stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and won the primary for a Republican committee spot in Doylestown on Tuesday, Patch reports. In Lancaster County, LNP reports Scott Nagle, a local leader of the far-right Oath Keepers militia, won a spot on the county's Republican committee. There's no indication Nagle was at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, but GOP gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano was and "could turn election lies into action," per the Associated Press.

ABORTION ACCESS: In addition to affecting gun and election laws, the governor's race also could reshape abortion access in Pennsylvania for years to come. With the U.S. Supreme Court's conservative majority poised to overturn Roe v. Wade and Republicans expected to maintain their majority in Pennsylvania's state legislature, the next governor will have a decisive role in preserving or rolling back access here. Reuters explains where the primary winners stand on the issue and what it might mean come November.

PRIMARY FAILS: State Rep. Stan Saylor of York, an influential Republican incumbent, was bested by an anti-establishment primary challenge on Tuesday, and state Sen. Pat Browne (R., Lehigh) appears poised to follow suit. Both men were criticized for being Harrisburg insiders, with political longevity becoming a political liability. Some Democratic incumbents also fell to newcomers or to other Democratic incumbents in head-to-head matchups forced by this year's redistricting results.

HATE CRIMES: Last year, 284 hate crimes were reported in Pennsylvania. It's the highest number since State Police started tracking them in the 1990s, LNP reports. Experts warn the data aren't always reliable, a point confirmed by LNP's own reporting, but they say it still points to an uptick. Broad calls for policy changes were renewed with Saturday's racist mass murder in Buffalo, New York, by an 18-year-old who was partly inspired by the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter.

» INQUIRER: Pa. man arrested for DUI six days after using pot 

» KDKA: PennDOT's contested bridge tolling plan paused by judge

» PENNLIVE: Fetterman to resume LG duties after stroke, surgery

» POST-GAZETTE: US Steel to pay $1.5M over pollution

» WTAE: Pa. companies quietly resume election-denier donations

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org.

NUMBERS RACKET (Case No. 147)If you can buy 1 for $1, 14 for $2, and 145 for $3, what are you buying?

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