PHILADELPHIA, PITTSBURGH, HARRISBURG (November 23, 2020) - As a deadly new wave of COVID-19 spreads throughout Pennsylvania prisons, advocates and family members of incarcerated people are calling on Governor Wolf, the legislature, and the Department of Corrections (DOC) to release more people and offer protection for those within prisons. On Monday November 23, people with incarcerated loved ones and their allies will travel to Harrisburg for an action with the Poor People’s Campaign at the State Capitol, after which they will caravan to the Governor's Mansion to deliver their demands in person. The caravan will leave the Capitol and arrive at the Governor’s mansion at 4pm.
“Our loved ones are dying, and Governor Wolf and the Pennsylvania Legislature are doing nothing to stop it,” said Patricia Vickers, member of the Human Rights Coalition (HRC) and the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration (CADBI). “We are calling on the Governor to use his reprieve power to immediately release elderly people, people who are medically vulnerable, and people nearing the end of their sentences. He has the power to save lives. He needs to use it.”
Prisons are widely considered the quickest and most dangerous places for virus spread, and COVID-19 cases in PA prisons have recently shot up to alarming levels. 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. Hundreds of prisoners and more than 200 staff have tested positive. Perhaps most troublingly, SCI Laurel Highlands -- which houses the DOC’s aging and medically vulnerable patients -- is experiencing the most severe outbreak, with 285 of its 864 person population currently testing positive for COVID-19.
“Currently guards are being shuffled around the prison like a deck of cards, working in and around COVID-19 infected areas and prisoners, then later working in and around non COVID-19 infection areas and prisoners,” writes someone incarcerated in a Pennsylvania prison. “The DOC is still allowing guards and staff to flow in and out of prisons with a simple temperature check, as COVID-19 cases, injury and deaths of prisoners continue to unnecessarily rise into the thousands!”
The coalition has a number of demands for the DOC that would reduce these risks, including basic public health measures like proper mask use and mandatory testing for staff and increased access to masks, COVID-19 testing, and sanitation supplies for incarcerated people. They are also demanding full transparency on infection rates, and quality medical care from outside hospitals when necessary.
Last week, 77 year-old Alvin Joyner died from complications due to COVID-19 at SCI-Chester. Mr. Joyner had been imprisoned for over 51 years and, like the vast majority of people in PA’s aging prison population, had no means of being released despite his age and medical vulnerability.
“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,” said Rev. Dr. Chris Kimmenez, Executive Director of Healing Communities PA. “In prisons, COVID-19 makes every sentence a potential death sentence. We are calling on the conscience and common sense of our governor and our legislators: bring our loved ones home.”
Advocates are also calling on the legislature to follow other states’ examples and create a new plan to release and protect people in PA prisons. They point to recent legislation in New Jersey, which was signed last month and has already led to the release of 2,2000 people.
More than thirty organizations have already signed onto the group’s demands, including the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration, ACLU-PA, POWER, Reclaim Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Stands Up, Put People First, and Physicians for Social Responsibility. You can view a complete list of the coalition’s demands and all the signatories here: http:.//decarceratepa.info/COVID-demands