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Pa.'s sickest prisoners stranded as costs soar

Plus, Dems walk out of hearing on ballot drop boxes in protest.


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Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
April 1, 2022
Sick and stranded, hard-hit, 'financial disaster,' committee walkout, cheap beer, and to the moon. It's Friday and April Fools' Day. No joke.
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The law governing compassionate release for sick and dying people in Pennsylvania State Prisons is so narrowly written that only 31 people have successfully petitioned for it in 13 years, Spotlight PA reports.

The taxpayer-funded costs of caring for those people have continued to soar as efforts to change the law drag on. There are more than 2,000 people in Pennsylvania-run prisons age 55 and up who are serving life now.

Their crimes are serious, but for many, so are their health needs. Under Pennsylvania law there's no way for them to get out and get better care, because a life sentence in Pennsylvania means no parole. 

This includes those people who are decades removed from the crime, sick, and determined to no longer be a danger to the public.

THE CONTEXT: In recent budget hearings, lawmakers from both parties noted the high cost — both human and financial — of keeping older and sick people in prison where their associated costs can be nearly double the rest.

The Department of Corrections spent $59,598 on average to house a person last fiscal year. But the cost to taxpayers can skyrocket to more than $100,000 for an incarcerated person in need of regular medical attention.

Spotlight PA spoke with 28 people serving life sentences to understand the experience of growing old behind bars. Many discussed remorse for the grave act that put them there, and detailed repeated and unsuccessful attempts at freedom, and a range of serious medical ailments.

Harold Gordon has been in a Pennsylvania prison for 50 years and has largely resigned himself to dying there. "I understand the way the system goes, if some relief is gained, it won't be me," Gordon wrote via a prison email system, "for I'll be dead by the time laws change if they ever will."

There are legislative efforts underway to create a more robust parole system for the aging and ailing by changing the state's current medical release provision to offer more flexible parole opportunities based on age or illness. But the efforts are slow going and the path ahead is unclear. 

"We've seen it all, as we got sh** from anti-vax folks to now getting sh** from the vaccinated folks."

—Sean Agnew, co-owner of Philadelphia's Union Transfer concert space, on a dilemma around masking rules that's confronting venues and performers
Sunset on the Susquehanna River, via Robert N. Send us your gems, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
'PURE HELL': Mifflin County was hit harder than almost any other county in Pennsylvania by COVID-19. With a heavy Republican lean, the county 60 miles northwest of Harrisburg has seen 300 deaths from the virus and has one of the highest COVID-19 death rates among U.S. counties with at least 40,000 people, The Inquirer reports. The county's coroner says the past two years have been "pure hell." 

DEM EXIT: Democrats on the Republican-led state Senate panel that's spearheading a probe of Pennsylvania's 2020 election walked out of the body's first public meeting since September in an act of protest on Thursday. The panel's GOP chair refused to administer a truth-affirming oath to conservative guests testifying about ballot drop boxes. "This is a charade," state Sen. Jay Costa (D., Allegheny) fumed.

BAD CREDIT: Meriel Schutkofsky is a 26-year-old living in King of Prussia who missed three payments on her federal student loans and then watched as her credit score plummeted into the low 400s. Her story is part of a Vice piece on a mysterious 1986 law that made credit reporting on student loans mandatory. That law, the outlet writes, has left millions of Americans "stuck in credit hell."

NEW OWNERSHIP: The media-shy co-owner of a Beaver County nursing home where one of the country's deadliest nursing home outbreaks of COVID-19 occurred gave MarketWatch a rare interview. The outlet says Ephram "Mordy" Lahasky's fast-growing nursing-home portfolio highlights the industry's drift toward less transparent ownership structures, and that's raising questions from regulators.

OPEN WAIVERS: Gov. Tom Wolf made an 11th-hour extension of Pennsylvania's pandemic-era regulatory waivers official this week, signing a bill into law that will keep them in place through June. The waivers, which were set to expire Thursday, offer health-care providers greater flexibility in responding to the COVID-19 crisis
FOOL'S GOLD: It's April Fools' Day, and in honor of the holiday, here's a flashback to 1996 when fast-food chain Taco Bell tried to convince everyone that it had purchased Philadelphia's Liberty Bell and renamed it.

LOTTA FIRSTS: Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University will send a lunar rover to the moon this year. WESA reports it's the first university-built and first student-built rover to make the trip. It's also the smallest. 

FOUNTAIN FIX: A downtown Chambersburg fountain hit by an airborne SUV in a suspected DUI crash in December is coming down to undergo planned repairs in Lancaster. WGAL reports the fixes could take months.

LIGHT SLEEP: Assuming the predictions weren't a bust, if you saw the northern lights over Pennsylvania this week and have pictures, please share, as I fell asleep on Wednesday watching Is It Cake?.

BEER ME: City Paper downed a raft of cheap Pennsylvania beers in 2019 so you wouldn't have to. Here are their relevant-as-ever impressions
Unscramble and send your answer to scrambler@spotlightpa.org. We'll shout out winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA swag.

*This week's theme: Grammar
Yesterday's answer: Adverbially

Congrats to our daily winners: Craig W., Michelle T., Barbara F., Bonnie R., Don H., Patricia M., Irene R., Kim C., Kate S., David S., Keith F., Al M., Judy M., Judith D., Ted W., Matt P., Elaine C., Dianne K., Susan D., Bette G., Kimberly S., William S., Joel S., Jude M., Pat B., George S., James B., Marisa B., Bill S., David W., Susan N.-Z., Starr B., Kyle C., Elizabeth W., Jill A.-S., Doris T., and John A.
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