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COVID-19 outbreak threatens hundreds at Pa. prison for medically vulnerable

Joseph Darius Jaafari of Spotlight PA
FILE - In this Nov. 27, 2017 file photo, a guard stands watch at the State Correctional Institution in Chester, Pa. As officials consider releasing some inmates to lessen the impact of COVID-19 on Pennsylvania prisons, county prosecutors are telling lawmakers that passing legislation to address that would avoid leaving those decisions to the governor alone. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

HARRISBURG — A serious coronavirus outbreak is unfolding inside the Pennsylvania prison facility for medically vulnerable inmates diagnosed with cancer or other health problems, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are urgently pushing for a release plan.

Four inmates at the Laurel Highlands facility in Somerset are currently in the hospital, and the facility reported its first death of the pandemic last week. In total, one-fifth of the prison’s inmates and staff is currently positive.

Systemwide, the state’s prisons have seen a 97% increase in total cases over the past month, the biggest spike since the pandemic began and mirroring statewide trends.

Corrections officials, lawmakers and inmates are especially concerned about the outbreak at Laurel Highlands because precautions have already been taken to try to prevent the spread, including cutting the population in half, to 844, and requiring staff to wear masks and social distance.

“Everyone here is following the rules,” said Robert Lark, who is serving a life sentence and was transferred to the facility two years ago after he had a brain aneurysm and started using a wheelchair. The coronavirus has spread to 51 people in his wing alone.

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections saw relatively low infection and death rates compared with other states between March and the end of September, with 427 cases, according to data gathered by The Marshall Project and The Associated Press. But since Oct. 1, total infections have nearly doubled to 841.

One-third of those new cases were at Laurel Highlands.

The spike has Rachel Lopez, an associate professor at the Thomas Kline School of Law at Drexel University, as well as other advocates, lawmakers and correctional officials renewing pressure to parole inmates with severe medical needs. Lopez, along with the Amistad Law Project, helped author a report on how to do this at the start of the pandemic.

“We kind of anticipated this would happen, but now that it has happened, I worry it’s too late,” she said.

When the pandemic hit, lawmakers disagreed on who or how many people should be let out of prisons in Pennsylvania. The state has the highest incarceration rate in the region, and it houses some of the oldest prisoners in the nation.

The department was able to reduce its total prison population by nearly 5,500, to 39,000 inmates, between March and May — the largest-ever reduction in a three-month time period through early parole and various programs. The state typically releases around 3,000 in the same time frame.

But lawmakers promised more. Among the 5,500 released were 153 who were part of the governor’s executive reprieve order that was meant to temporarily release thousands more. That effort was watered down by strict requirements, such as restricting release to those who had nonviolent offenses, a medical condition and a parole date within six to nine months. Less than half a percent of the state’s incarcerated population ended up being released. Thirteen were from Laurel Highlands.

Still, the releases helped the Department of Corrections keep its coronavirus cases lower than other states, but prisoners' advocates warned about a false sense of security this summer and said it wouldn’t be enough to keep the virus from spreading.

In response to the Laurel Highlands outbreak, lawmakers are scrambling again to pass a medical parole bill, with the aim of releasing any inmate who has a terminal illness. The effort, lawmakers say, could save the state millions of dollars a year at a time when it faces a budget crisis caused by the pandemic.

“We desperately need to do something,” said Sen. Camera Bartolotta (R., Washington), who has been working alongside Sen. Lisa Baker (R., Luzerne) toward legislation. “Last week there were three deaths in our state facility. I certainly don’t want what happened in our nursing homes to be the same scenario in our prison system.”

Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, said in a statement he “supports legislative efforts to make medical parole a priority and more ways to reduce the number of non-violent offenders going to prison, in particular during the pandemic.”

The coronavirus spikes in prisons are mimicking trends across the state, especially in rural counties where state correctional institutions are located and where their staffers live. Much like in nursing homes, prisoners' advocates have warned that community spread could eventually lead to a surge in cases and deaths inside the prisons.

Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel echoed the worry, saying every prison has seen an infection and that for elderly or medically vulnerable inmates, the outcome would “not be so good.” In a call with media outlets last week, Wetzel called on the Legislature to pass a medical parole bill.

The state has long struggled with protocols to release those with terminal illnesses or geriatric inmates — defined as anyone over 50 years old by department standards. Prior to the pandemic, inmate releases were only considered through a compassionate release program, which requires victims' input, the approval of the sentencing judge and Department of Corrections, and a doctor’s note confirming the inmate’s prognosis.

“The guidelines are so narrow for compassionate release, nobody’s really getting it,” said Celeste Trusty, Pennsylvania state policy director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which has been working with conservative lawmakers to help push medical parole legislation. “You have to really be on death’s door, and even then it’s not a sure thing.”

Since the beginning of the year, nine people have applied for compassionate release, and four were approved, according to the corrections department.

“Every year, we work with a dozen families with loved ones in hospice care to allow the family member to die at home and not die at taxpayer expense at prisons,” said Claire Shubik-Richards, executive director with the Pennsylvania Prison Society.

Families of those incarcerated are struggling with feelings of helplessness and worry.

“We can’t even control it out here; I have little hope that they’re gonna be able to control it in there,” said Ron Lark, Robert’s brother. “There’s nowhere they can run to escape it.”

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