State Senator Urges Additional Action to Protect Prisons & Jails from Coronavirus

State Senator Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery/Delaware) today published an open letter urging Governor Tom Wolf to reduce the number of people incarcerated in Pennsylvania, and thus at risk of contracting COVID-19, or the coronavirus.

The open letter was sent to Governor Wolf, his legislative staff, Pennsylvania Department of Health Secretary Rachel Levine, Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel and Attorney General Josh Shapiro via email on March 30, 2020. The full text of the letter is below and available as a PDF.

Text of the open letter:

Dear Governor Wolf, et al:

I am writing to you today about the urgent need to release a large number of people who are currently incarcerated in Pennsylvania. This is necessary in order to prevent many needless deaths among prisoners, corrections officers, and members of the public at large.

I am aware that the administration is already taking some steps to reduce Pennsylvania’s extremely high prison population, and I applaud that effort. However, I am calling on the administration, along with relevant county officials, to take far more aggressive steps to prevent what appears to be an oncoming catastrophe.

In the broader context of the Coronavirus, we are frequently hearing that Pennsylvania is about two weeks behind New York. It is certainly true that New York has a very dire situation and a wide variety of acute problems. However, it is undeniable that the situation in their prisons is among the most critical. Here is a link to an article entitled “Prisoners at Rikers Say It’s Like A ‘Death Sentence’ As Coronavirus Spreads.”

The article paints a dim and frightening picture. The COVID-19 infection rate in New York City jails is 87 times that of the general population of the United States. At the current rate of infection, virtually the entire population of the prisons will contract the virus. As of Friday, 103 inmates and 80 COs at Rikers had tested positive and one CO had already died. Sadly, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Inmates are not tested until they are severely symptomatic and are not removed until they test positive. This means that they often spend weeks spreading the virus among inmates and staff undetected.

It is not surprising that the virus is so rampant in a prison environment. The same design features that make prisons secure also make them ideal for the spread of the virus. Prisoners live in crowded spaces, utterly unable to practice the social distancing that we all agree is vital to stopping the infection. The hygiene in prisons is clearly not optimal, with few opportunities to hand-sanitize and disinfect surfaces. Prisoners often are sleeping two or more to a small cell and must shower, eat and recreate in close proximity to others. Further, it is empirically true that people who are incarcerated are statistically less healthy and thus more at risk than the general population.

Of course, prisoners who become infected and the guards who watch them aren’t the only ones at risk. As prisoners are brought to courthouses for processing and transferred between prisons, more people are exposed to them. When prisoners become so sick they need major medical intervention, the prison medical facilities are often inadequate. A recent news report said that the entire Department of Corrections has only four ventilators. Very sick prisoners will be transferred to hospitals where they will be exposed to other people, including health care professionals, and use ventilators and other equipment in short supply which could cost others their lives.

Pennsylvania has been proactive in ordering schools and businesses closed and urging citizens to practice social distancing while avoiding others. This is because we recognize how serious this pandemic is and the likely consequences of inaction. That same attitude must govern how we deal with our prisons and jails. Other states are in fact taking the sort of aggressive action we need to institute immediately. And it’s not just states. Even notorious human-rights abuser Iran has now released over 100,000 prisoners because they recognize the danger their entire society faces.

I have reviewed the protocols other states have enacted, and I am recommending the following:

    • All cash bail for non-violent offenses should be suspended immediately, except for cases where there is a judicial finding that a defendant is a danger to himself or others, or has a demonstrated history of fleeing to avoid prosecution.
    • All incarceration for technical (non-criminal) violations of probation or parole should be suspended immediately, and all those currently incarcerated solely for such technical violations should be released pending the resolution of this crisis.
    • All inmates currently incarcerated solely for non-violent misdemeanors, nonviolent felonies, and drug possession charges should be released immediately.
    • A special expedited review process should be instituted to evaluate which prisoners are medically vulnerable or have served their minimum sentences and are eligible for parole, or are potentially eligible for compassionate release. Absent a compelling reason, such prisoners should be released immediately.
    • All prisoners eligible for parole in the next 12 months should have a parole hearing as soon as possible, with a presumption that parole will be granted barring exceptional circumstances.
    • Any person arrested for crimes that would not be eligible for release under these guidelines, but who shows symptoms of CV19 or is known to have been exposed to others who have been confirmed to have CV19, should not be placed in general prison population but should instead be isolated and quarantined for the medically appropriate period of time.
    • The administration should issue a public statement indicating that reducing the jail and prison population in Pennsylvania is an important public policy goal. The statement should urge the Attorney General, the PA Supreme Court, and local prosecutors and judges to fulfill the duties of their offices consistent with that important public policy goal.

Fortunately, we may still have time to avert a human tragedy of epic proportions. It is critically important that all policy makers do all we can to preserve the lives of our those we incarcerate, those who watch over them, and the public at-large.

Thank you for your consideration of this matter.

Senator Daylin Leach
17th Senatorial District