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Hundreds could be released from Pa. state prisons under plan to prevent a coronavirus outbreak

Cynthia Fernandez of Spotlight PA and Matt McKinney of Spotlight PA
Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel discusses results of an internal review of parole cases that involved recent homicides or attempted homicides, during a press conference in Mechanicsburg on Wednesday, August 28, 2019.

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HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration is drafting legislation that would provide for the release of a small number of state prison inmates, part of expanding efforts to prevent a deadly coronavirus outbreak within the system.

A source familiar with the discussions said Tuesday that the number of inmates eligible for release under the proposal remains fluid but could range from 500 to 3,000 of the approximately 45,000 inmates.

A proposal outlined by a state Senate staffer in an email Friday said the state would prioritize those who are serving shorter sentences for typically nonviolent, low-level offenses and are deemed medically “vulnerable.”

The email was sent by the legislative director of Sen. Larry Farnese, D-Philadelphia, to other state senators and reviewed by Spotlight PA. Farnese is minority chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which would be a required stop for any such legislation.

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“There has been a push to release all the old and infirm inmates,” the legislative director, Sarah Speed, said in the March 27 email. “However, these are almost exclusively serving life sentences or are sex offenders.”

Instead, according to Speed’s email, the legislation would target offenders who meet two measures: one, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s definition of medically “vulnerable” as it applies to COVID-19; and two, those who are eligible for “short sentence parole.”

“These eligible offenders would be reviewed on a case by case basis for release onto house arrest or to a community corrections center,” Speed said, referring to transitional housing. “If the offender does well out in the community, they would be permitted to go through the parole process while staying in the community, otherwise they would be sent back to prison.”

The Department of Corrections declined to provide specifics Tuesday.

“The DOC is very concerned about the threat of COVID within our state prisons and is taking many actions to mitigate this issue,” Maria Finn, a spokesperson for the department, said in an email. “We have not yet recommended any specific legislation, but additional efforts are being considered and developed.”

According to Speed’s email, the legislation is being drafted with the Office of the Victim Advocate and an organization that represents the state’s district attorneys.

Lindsay Vaughan, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said in an email her organization is working with the department to identify “non-violent inmates” nearing parole eligibility who could be considered for an early transfer to a transitional facility or to house arrest.

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“The smaller details here are critical, and must be sensitive to victims,” Vaughan said. “Excluding most of those who have committed crimes against individuals is paramount.”

Jennifer Storm, Pennsylvania’s official victim advocate, said Monday she “would encourage the legislature to look at those non-violent, victimless individuals first.”

“I think that that would satisfy the concerns that people are having,” she said. “I think it’s a big enough population that it would make a difference in the institutions.”

Advocacy groups and the corrections officers’ union have each raised concerns that the state prison system could face a debilitating outbreak because the often-cramped quarters inside the facilities make social distancing all but impossible.

On Saturday, the first inmate in the state system tested positive, leading the corrections secretary, John Wetzel, to place the entire system under quarantine. The department also has said three employees have self-reported positive tests.

More:Pa. corrections officers, advocates worry a prison coronavirus outbreak is inevitable

In response, the officers’ union has called for the end of nonessential movement of inmates. The advocacy groups, meanwhile, are pushing for the release of lower risk, vulnerable people nearing the end of their sentences to reduce the possibility of exposure.

Other states are either considering or have already taken similar steps. New York, for example, announced last week that it would release 1,100 parole violators from custody. In Illinois, an executive order last week halted all new admissions to state prisons in a push to slow the spread of the virus.

Already, Pennsylvania’s corrections department said it is furloughing paroled individuals living at transitional centers, “working with the parole board to maximize releases,” and reviewing cases where a person has already served a minimum sentence.

As of Tuesday, the state’s prison population had decreased by nearly 500 people over the past month.

Still, some advocates want to see far more aggressive action and believe Wolf is passing the buck to the Legislature. According to the Department of Corrections, there are only four ventilators in the state’s prison system. Speed said in her Friday email all are currently in use.

“If the institutions have to transfer people into local hospitals, that is an additional burden the hospital takes on, and then the health care system gets overwhelmed,” said Andy Hoover, a spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

Hoover said the proposal as laid out in Speed’s email “sounds really narrow and potentially problematic.” He said the ACLU and groups that advocate for incarcerated people sent a letter to Wolf on March 18 urging the state to do all it can to ramp up releases.

Hoover added that, under the state Constitution, Wolf has reprieve powers that allow him to temporarily suspend a sentence and release a person from prison temporarily. An attorney for the corrections department confirmed that Wolf “could probably do it” in an email obtained by The Appeal.

“The fact that legislators are going through this exercise is an indictment of Gov. Wolf,” Hoover said. “He has powers to release people from prisons right now and lessen the likelihood that people will die in state prisons.”

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman said in a phone interview Tuesday there is “bipartisan interest and appetite for a legislative solution,” although the reprieve process could be a fallback should legislative talks falter.

He said he prefers that releases come through bipartisan legislation, rather than reprieves, because it could create a “broader solution to the long-term issue of overpopulation.”

As of late Tuesday afternoon, Fetterman had not seen a draft of the legislation but said the “timetable would be as quickly as theoretically is possible.”

“I would just remind allies in that fight that it’s not a simple 'throw the doors open and let everyone go,'” he said. “It’s a matter of discerning who are the right candidates, and do they have home plans, and do they have a place to stay.

“There’s a lot that goes into that. It’s not just a simple, ‘OK, we can let everybody go.’”

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