To the DOC and PA policymakers: Save lives of people in prison during COVID-19

Wolf and Wetzel in front of PA Capitol

Everyone deserves the best possible chance to survive in a pandemic – and that includes access to healthcare and the ability to safely socially distance at home. In prisons, COVID-19 makes every sentence a potential death sentence. 

While other states and municipalities have taken action to release people from prisons and jails, Pennsylvania has been fostering dangerous conditions for incarcerated people, prison staff, and the community at large. Six people in PA prisons have died in the last month. More than 700 prisoners and 350 staff have tested positive. Without significant action from the Governor, the Legislature, and the Department of Corrections, those numbers will only multiply.

We are calling on Governor Wolf to use his reprieve power to immediately release elderly people, people who are medically vulnerable, and people nearing the end of their sentence.     

We are calling on the PA Legislature to pass legislation making elderly people eligible for parole, as well as legislation allowing people to earn time off their sentences for every month served during the pandemic.

We are calling on the Department of Corrections to immediately implement and enforce basic public health measures, including proper mask use and mandatory testing for staff and increased access to masks, COVID-19 testing, and sanitation supplies for incarcerated people. 

We are calling on the Parole Board to streamline parole processes and to institute presumptive parole.

See a complete list of demands for saving lives and reducing the spread of COVID-19 in PA prisons below:   

Demands of Governor Wolf:

  1. Release people from prison in order to save lives. Use your executive power of reprieve as governor to immediately release people from prison, prioritizing those who are elderly (over the age of 50), medically vulnerable, and/or within a year of the end of their sentence. Reducing the prison population by thousands will make social distancing in prison more possible.

  1. Immediately sign all commutations that have been recommended by the PA Board Of Pardons. Expedite any pending commutation/reconsideration applications/hearings.

  1. Expand and expedite compassionate release, parole, commutation, and early release mechanisms so that people can return to their homes as quickly as possible.

  1. Provide access to essential services – healthcare, mental health treatment, housing, and food access – for people being released from incarceration so they have the tools they need to stay healthy and safe on the outside.

  2. Pursue any and all additional emergency measures (including medical furlough) to release as many elderly (over the age of 50) and medically vulnerable people from prison as quickly as possible.

Demands of the PA Legislature:

Pass legislation that allows for early release in order to save people’s lives.

  1. Afford parole eligibility for all elderly prisoners. Everyone over the age of 50 should be granted the chance to seek parole. 

  1. For people within a year of their release date, follow the model of New Jersey’s recent legislation (the Public Health Emergency Act) that allows for earned “good time” to garner early release.

  1. Enact widespread sentencing reductions. Significantly reduce everyone’s sentence or minimum date.

Primary Demands of DOC:

  1. In the time of a pandemic, no one should be imprisoned past their minimum release date. Ensure parole eligibility for everyone at their minimum date from this moment forward and for anyone who is already incarcerated past their minimum date, consider these people for immediate release. 

  1. Uphold the system-wide mandate for all DOC staff to wear masks at all times. DOC staff who do not follow this mandate should face disciplinary action. Wearing a mask means that both the mouth and nose are covered.

  1. We demand increased transparency from the DOC in the form of at minimum a weekly report and/or press briefing. This report must include most up-to-date data about:

    1. The number of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 at each prison each week;

    2. The number of deaths of incarcerated people due to COVID-19 at each prison each week; and

    3. The number of COVID-19 tests (NOT including temperature checks or flu tests) administered in each prison each week.

  2. The DOC must issue a set of standardized medical criteria for sending incarcerated people to facilities outside of the DOC to receive care. All seriously ill patients should have access to outside medical care.

  3. Covid-19 tests (NOT just temperature checks and not flu tests) should be administered  to ALL staff at state prisons on a weekly basis (following the guidelines set out by the CDC and the Center for Medicare/Medicaid Services for long-term care/nursing home facilities). If even one staff member or incarcerated individual tests positive for COVID-19, viral testing should be expanded to ALL staff and incarcerated individuals at that prison.

  1. Provide free access to and regular distribution of masks and personal hygiene items – soap and disinfectants to all incarcerated individuals throughout Pennsylvania in compliance with COVID-19 protocols mandated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov). People should not have to use the same one or two masks for months and months on end. 

  1. Single cells should immediately be guaranteed for all elderly prisoners (over the age of 50) and those who are medically vulnerable, and the DOC should work towards single cells for all.

Additional Demands of DOC:

  1. Expedite the commutation process by lifting the requirement that all applicants interview with Secretary Wetzel.

  2. Cap the number of hours per shift for all incarcerated people in work release programs (including shifts of people who are covering the shifts of sick coworkers) in order to decrease the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission. People on work release are being overworked to cover the shifts of their sick coworkers.

  3. Introduce tele-health resources so that incarcerated people in PA can receive adequate and timely physical and mental healthcare.

  4. Issue a system-wide expansion of care package items that are available for family members to buy for incarcerated loved ones. Family members should be able to buy household items such as blankets, as well as more nutritional food items that will support the health and wellness of their incarcerated loved ones, including fresh fruits and vegetables, vitamins, and other immune support.

  5. Introduce tablets for all incarcerated individuals and allow individuals to use their tablets in their cells. Months of social isolation due to lockdowns and restrictions on phone calls and visitations are detrimental to the mental health of incarcerated individuals.

Demands of Parole Board:

  1. In the time of a pandemic, no one should be imprisoned past their minimum release date. There should be a presumption of parole for everyone who has met their minimum date unless the parole board can prove serious and unresolved disciplinary infractions. For everyone who is currently incarcerated past their minimum date, parole hearings should be scheduled immediately. Parole hearings should be expedited so that people can be released as quickly as possible.

  2. Individuals should not be denied parole for failing to complete classes that are not currently being offered because of the pandemic. These requirements should be waived at this time.  

Demands of PA Department of Health:

The Department of Health should create and implement a comprehensive and mandatory COVID-19 testing plan for all incarcerated individuals, staff, and outside vendors/visitors to PA state prisons. Tests should be administered on a weekly basis following the guidelines set out by the CDC and the Center for Medicare/Medicaid Services for long-term care/nursing home facilities.

Signatories:

The Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration (CADBI)

Abolitionist Law Center

Amistad Law Project

ACLU-PA

Movement Alliance Project

Human Rights Coalition

Free the Ballot

Decarcerate PA

1 Hood Power

Reclaim Philadelphia

Pennsylvania Stands Up

Lifelines Project

Youth Art & Self-Empowerment Project (YASP)

HRC-Fed Up

Healing Communities USA

POWER

Physicians for Social Responsibility

Prison From the Inside Out, Inc (FTIO) - Pennsylvania Chapter

The Women Lifer’s Resume Project of PA

Penn Law-Compassionate Release Collaborative

Why Not Prosper

Art for Justice

PA Poor People's Campaign

Global Women's Strike

Women of Color in the Global Women's Strike

Penn National Lawyers Guild

Criminal Record Expungement Project 

Law Students for a Democratic Society

Journal for Law and Social Change

Youth Advocacy Project

Prison Legal Education Project 

Unincarcerated Minds 

Vietlead

Institute for Community Justice

It Could Happen To You-PA

Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project

Sagewriters Inc.

Queen Academy

Juntos

Philadelphia Community Bail Fund

Philadelphia Bail Fund

Lilac

SocFem