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County prison where 16 died facing staff, COVID woes

Plus, work on the multibillion-dollar Mariner East pipeline is done.


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February 18, 2022

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Prison probe, pipeline plan, no answers, power play, unhappy home, student outrage, and Pa.'s Ukrainian community braces for war. It's Friday.
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Sixteen people have died in Dauphin County Prison custody since 2019, an abnormally high number that a preliminary report ties back to staffing shortages, communication issues, and pandemic constraints.

Pennsylvania's former secretary of corrections, John Wetzel, was brought on to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the facility and announced his first progress report on Thursday, 90 days into an 18-month review period.

According to PennLive, Wetzel is largely attributing the problem to a national staffing crisis and increased workloads during the COVID-19 pandemic. About 15% of the prison's 300-some positions are currently vacant.    

But deaths at the prison were high before the pandemic, too, drawing protests, lawsuits, and continued scrutiny.

THE CONTEXT: Before the pandemic, a Reuters investigation counted at least 20 deaths at Dauphin County Prison between 2008 and 2019

The authors noted how hard it can be to get accurate accounting from prison officials. In reporting published this month, PennLive confirmed serious gaps in county prison death disclosures, despite legal mandates.

In a press briefing on Thursday, Wetzel said policy changes are planned or in motion in Dauphin County, including changes in how families are notified in the event of a loved one's death or medical emergency.

Jamal Crummel was the latest person to die in the prison's custody. His cause and manner of death remain under investigation, but county officials confirmed the 45-year-old had hypothermia before he died. 

Crummel's father said he learned of his son's death on Facebook.
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"This will be the one vote I really regret." 

—Bethlehem Councilor Grace Crampsie Smith on the approval of a contested development project amid fears that voting no could draw a lawsuit
» CHRONIC FATIGUE: Some experts warn COVID-19 could create an epidemic of the condition known as chronic fatigue syndrome.

» CASE COUNT: New cases of COVID-19 are down to pre-omicron levels in Pennsylvania, leading some officials to reconsider risk assessments

» OMICRON'S TOLL: Nine thousand people in Pennsylvania died of COVID-19 during the omicron wave, making it one of the hardest-hit states.

» VARIANT WATCH: The omicron surge is slowing but scientists are keeping a close eye on an omicron subvariant called BA.2.

To find a COVID-19 vaccine, use the federal government's online tool, call 1-800-232-0233, or text your zip code to 438829 (GETVAX).
CHILD CARE CRISIS: At Spotlight PA, we’re continuing to investigate the state’s child care crisis as providers struggle to hire enough workers and keep their doors open. Right now, we’re working on a story about the state’s Child Care Works program, which the Wolf administration says makes it possible for low-income families to find reliable child care. And we want to hear from you!

If you’ve struggled to find reliable and affordable child care, or have experience with Child Care Works, let Spotlight PA reporter Ed Mahon know at emahon@spotlightpa.org.
A Spotlight PA staffer shares this snapshot from Harrisburg. Send us your gems, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
READY TO LAUNCH: After years of environmental damage, delays, and with criminal cases pending, work on the multibillion-dollar Mariner East pipeline was completed this month — and the builders say they're ready to put it into service. The announcement caps what the AP has called one of the most penalized projects in state history. Safety concerns linger for those Pennsylvanians along its path.

NO COMMENT: What happened to three older adults at the center of abuse or neglect cases involving a Philadelphia care agency remains a mystery. Under questioning by lawmakers this week, the head of Pennsylvania’s Department of Aging refused to say whether the three were alive or dead or who should be held responsible. "I’m not at liberty to comment," Secretary of Aging Robert Torres said repeatedly.

POWER LIMITS: The owners of Pennsylvania's largest coal-fired power plant say operations might be downsized, without layoffs, to offset the costs of Gov. Tom Wolf's contested carbon fee. But the governor's office told the Indiana Gazette that the owners of the Homer City plant were talking about downsizing "long before" the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and related fee were proposed.

HOME DISPUTE: The fight for tenant rights has come home for Philadelphia housing activist Asantewaa Nkrumah-Ture. Nkrumah-Ture says a new landlord gave her 30 days to leave her home and then moved their family in. Things have escalated since, drawing assault allegations, visits from police, a city councilor's attempted intervention, and a phone call to the city's top cop, The Inquirer reports.

STUDENT SIT-IN: A sit-in over the handling of sexual assault allegations at a Bethlehem high school led to classes being canceled there earlier this week and police citations for some of the protesting students. Charter High School for the Arts students told Lehigh Valley Live the allegations were ignored by administrators. Officials say they're looking into the claims and planning policy updates.
WAITING FOR WAR: President Joe Biden on Thursday said a Russian invasion of Ukraine appears imminent. Ukrainian communities from Lehigh Valley to Pittsburgh are keeping a "wary eye on their ancestral land."

TAX BURDEN: Artist Harrison Kinnane Smith's new exhibit at Pittsburgh's Mattress Factory explores the concept of home and, more specifically, "the racial tilt of Allegheny County's aging property assessments."

DEI DISCUSSION: Journalist Wesley Lowery will be on WURD at 8 this morning to talk about his recent piece on The Inquirer's anti-racist reckoning called "Black City, White Paper." Listen live here

HORSE DRAWN: Gov. Tom Wolf wants to launch a $200 million scholarship program with money normally used to prop up the state's horse racing industry. The horse racing industry, for one, isn't thrilled, per PennLive. 

'FREAK ACCIDENT': No one was hurt when a runaway tire crashed into the windshield of a parked police cruiser in Centre County this week. The incident was caught on dashcam video, a reminder to check those lug nuts.
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: Performing arts

Yesterday's answer: Accompanist

Congrats to our daily winners: Susan N.-Z., Bonnie R., Don H., Barbara F., Vicki U., Keith F., Elaine C., Craig W., Dianne K., William S., Becky C., James B., George S., Susan D., Jude M., David W., Doris T., Doug W., Bill S., Pat B., Richard V., Tim H., Kim C., and Elizabeth W.
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