DA: York County Prison work-release inmates furloughed or locked back up

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch
York County Prison Monday, June 10, 2019. Bill Kalina photo

York County Prison inmates in the work-release program have been released from the facility on temporary furloughs, received early parole or have been moved back inside the prison in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19, York County District Attorney Dave Sunday said.

Work-release inmates leave the facility daily to go to jobs, return there on their own afterward and are housed in buildings separate from the "regular" prison.

"The work-release door is basically shut. Individuals were either temporarily furloughed or were reassigned to other areas of the prison," Sunday told The York Dispatch. "My understanding is that the vast majority of work-release inmates have been temporarily furloughed for the safety of the prison and the surrounding community."

Inmates deemed eligible for the 30-day furloughs pose little risk of violence to the community, as they are typically being punished for nonviolent, low-level criminal offenses, according to the DA.

Inmates who received early parole were eligible because they had completed all their probation requirements and were approved for release by probation officers after "a full vetting process," the DA said.

On Wednesday evening, York County spokesman Mark Walters said that 32 inmates on work release have been paroled, and nine others received temporary furloughs.

"Some completed their sentences, and the rest were moved into the secure prison," Walters said.

There are, on average, about 120 inmates in the prison's work-release program at any given time, according to Sunday.

'Low risk' only: The district attorney's office is also accepting petitions from defense attorneys seeking the emergency release of clients whose ages or medical conditions make them particularly vulnerable to contracting COVID-19 and dying of complications from the virus, according to Sunday.

"This is by no means a wholesale release of prisoners," Sunday said. "This is the opposite of that. This is a method and system to identify people who may fall within a low-risk category who we can, for the safety of the community, get out of the prison."

York County District Attorney Dave Sunday

Sunday said the petitions for emergency release are currently being reviewed by two of his top prosecutors — first assistant district attorney Tim Barker and chief deputy prosecutor John Hamme.

"We're looking at some of the elderly inmates," Sunday said, adding the reviews are being done on a case-by-case basis and that prosecutors are checking with crime victims first to see if they have objections.

Victims have a say: "That's important to me, to make sure of that even though we are in unprecedented times, and even though these decisions are being made to (protect the public)," Sunday said, adding he is aware of his responsibility to crime victims.

A crime victim's input will be an important factor in considering every emergency release, he said.

Releasing certain inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic "is strategically important" for the York County community because doing so could prevent a large outbreak of the virus in the prison, according to the DA.

"When people get sick in the prison, they go to the hospital. They take up beds in the hospital. They take up, potentially, ventilators in the hospital," Sunday said, meaning there are fewer hospital beds and equipment for law-abiding citizens.

"It's also critical to do everything we can to make sure our corrections officers are safe and healthy," the DA said. "If our corrections officers get sick, then there aren't corrections officers in the prison."

Adams County District Attorney Brian Sinnett said there is a process in place to review specific cases where the medical needs of an inmate might justify a temporary furlough or early release, according to office spokeswoman Carla Lloyd.

Sinnett also said no mass release of work-release inmates at the Adams County jail has been discussed with his office, according to Lloyd. A message left with prison administration there was not immediately returned.

This week, a federal judge ordered the temporary release of four federal immigration detainees being held in York County Prison, as well as six others at prisons in Pike and Clinton counties. All 10 are either middle-age or older or have serious ongoing medical issues.

More:Federal judge: Release 10 ICE detainees in York County Prison, 2 other jails

More:'Humanitarian crisis': ACLU sues, says York County Prison puts ICE detainees at risk from coronavirus

More:Warden: York prison monitoring staff, inmates; quarantining as necessary

'Pleasantly surprised': Longtime York defense attorney Suzanne Smith said she's heard no complaints from her colleagues about the process. Smith is on the York County Bar Association's board of directors.

"I have heard from a number of other defense attorneys saying the ADAs were working with them and they hadn't had any issues," she said. "They asked us to submit names of people in the prison who we thought could be released early or furloughed, who had done something minor."

Smith said she "was pleasantly surprised" that prosecutors released some eligible inmates proactively, and noted that prosecutors, probation officers and prison officials have all been working together on the issue of early releases and temporary furloughs.

"Those are people you trust to go to work every day and come back," she said of work-release inmates.

Smith said Warden Doll has addressed other defense attorney concerns, including letting them use visiting rooms so they can speak with clients through a glass partition. He has shut off the routine recording of those calls, she confirmed, as it is illegal for government entities to listen in on attorney-client conversations.

Prior to the pandemic, defense attorneys had face-to-face visits with clients, she said.

Smith said county officials should continue to review early-release petitions.

"This is an ever-changing situation," she said.

An example, she said, would be an inmate whose spouse is currently caring for their children but who contracts COVID-19 in the coming weeks or months. In such a case, a defense attorney might request emergency release for the inmate if there's no other family members to care for the children. 

— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.