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Families kept in the dark as Pa. inmates die alone

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Your Postmaster: Ed Mahon
December 17, 2020
Left in the dark, the disconnected counties, snow wreckage, sub shortage, and how to make a snow volcano. It's Friday, and the last day of Hanukkah.

Family members of those who are incarcerated in Pennsylvania state prisons told Spotlight PA they are kept in the dark as their loved ones face life-threatening illness and, in some cases, die.

That's what happened to Yvonne Newkirk, whose 60-year-old brother, Edward Ball, was an inmate at SCI-Dallas. 

After two days of nonstop calls from Newkirk, a sympathetic nurse explained that her brother was hospitalized and intubated after a positive COVID-19 diagnosis weeks earlier. But the hospital where she suspected he was being treated told her she needed to get answers from the prison.

And then, she said, the prison wouldn't provide more information.

On Dec. 11, the hospital called Newkirk to tell her that her brother was dead.

THE CONTEXT: Families are stuck in bureaucratic limbo as they try to get information from hospitals and the Department of Corrections, according to the executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society.

Corrections officials contend a federal law limits what private medical information they can release. But an Arizona-based attorney who specializes in patient privacy requirements said correctional facilities, which often provide care similar to a hospital, should release information to family members.

And Newkirk said the state didn't provide her information even though she was her brother's emergency contact and power of attorney. This problem is all the more pressing as prisons have seen a surge in coronavirus cases, which the department is struggling to contain.

On Tuesday, the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association called for a lockdown. Vaccines will help eventually. But the state's vaccination plan puts prisoners and corrections staff in the 1B phase, behind health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities.


"I’ll be honest, I’m nervous. We can’t give every homeless person a hotel room. If they are in transition, if they have a job, hopefully they can get back on their feet."

— Darrel Reinford, executive director of Christian Churches United of the Tri-County Area, who's concerned there won't be enough beds available for people when cold weather forces them out of outdoor encampments

POST IT: Great pre-snow shot of the sunset at Freeport Beach in North East, Pa. Thanks Lynne P.! Send us your hidden gems (or your snow photos!), use the hashtag #PAGems, or tag us on Instagram at @spotlightpennsylvania.
WRECKAGE: The state saw many car crashes during the big snowstorm that began Wednesday. One on Interstate 80 in Clinton County involved at least 66 vehicles and led to one death. Another person connected to the crash died from an unrelated medical issue, police said.

ALLEGED FAILURES: A Bucks County couple is suing state and local officials, alleging that they failed to protect their 7-year-old, who was killed while visiting her biological father. She was murdered in 2018 during a court-ordered visit, and the case received international attention, which led to an effort to change Pennsylvania's child custody laws, the Bucks County Courier Times reports.

SUBSTITUTES IN DEMAND: "We Need You!" the West Chester Area School District said in a flier, seeking substitute teachers. Many schools are struggling to have enough teachers in the classroom, in part because teachers who have been exposed to the virus need to quarantine, The Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

POOR CONNECTION: In order for Tim Westgate to attend weekly Bible study classes over Zoom, he has to drive to a library and find a street light to park under. Such is life in Honesdale, Wayne County, and many other parts of the state where people don't have reliable internet, Jordan Wolman reports for WLVR.

BAYFRONT PROMISES: Lawyers for NAACP's Erie branch and an environmental group have filed a federal lawsuit over the approval process for a $100 million construction plan for the city's Bayfront Parkway. The president of the branch said generations of residents have seen similar projects fail to live up to their promise, GoErie reports.
» HELP US FINISH 2020 STRONG: Support Spotlight PA's essential local journalism by becoming a member now. Any amount makes a difference. Thank you to Evelyn S., Thomas S., John M., and Suzanne S. for contributing and claiming tote bags in the last couple of days. 

TAKE FIVE: Sure, this science activity is billed as something kids will love. But I will personally testify that a snow volcano is super fun, even if yours doesn't turn out as pretty as the one in the guide.

WHAT TO READ IF ... YOU'RE LOOKING FOR ANOTHER HOLIDAY TREAT: TBH, this Norwegian "wreath cake" recipe seems kind of intimidating. The treat, known as a kransekake, is assembled with 18 layers of almond-flavored cookies, stacked on top of each other. Icing, besides being delicious, serves as glue to hold the rings in place. The full recipe is here, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

TWO RIVERS: I was a little distracted when I first read this WESA headline, and I thought it said, "Why Ice Forms Differently On The Moon vs. The Allegheny." I thought, hmm, that's an unusual comparison. Turns out, the story was comparing ice formation on the Allegheny River and the Mon (or Monongahela River). It was still fascinating!

FOOD FROM AFAR: If coronavirus precautions will keep you away from the home of the world's greatest cheesesteaks, hoagies, and soft pretzels, fear not. Billy Penn has details on how you can order Philadelphia food for yourself or family members.

THE GREATEST OF ALL TIME: I don't know how I feel leaving the definitive list of the 2,020 greatest songs of all time up to Philadelphia, but a city radio station is doing it anyway. WXPN polled its listeners and is revealing their choices in a marathon show, the New York Times reports.

Unscramble and send your answer to scrambler@spotlightpa.org. We'll shout out the winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA swag. Love the scrambler? Make a donation to help us end 2020 strong.

Yesterday's answer: Excogitate

Congrats to our daily winners: Mary Ellen T., George S., Jarrod B., Heidi G., Carol D., John C., Lynne E., Susan D., David I., and Kim C.
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