“We’re really focusing on … ‘low-hanging fruit,’ ” said John Wetzel, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
Wetzel said eight inmates were the first released to a halfway house or home arrest, under the governor’s order, including one from each of Bucks, Montgomery and Chester counties. The DOC is expected to recommend the release of up to another 1,800 low-risk inmates, who are within 12 months of their release date, in order to lower prison populations and stop the spread of COVID-19.
Officials will post information regarding each inmate released on the DOC website.
So far, they’ve kept positive cases low, with just 17 inmates infected in state-run prisons — all at SCI Phoenix in Montgomery County, and four in halfway houses.
As of last week, the rate at which the virus was infecting people at Rikers Island in New York was seven times greater than the rate of infection in New York City itself.
If Pennsylvania prisons mirrored that rate, Wetzel said the DOC would see 2,200 infections. Mirroring local community rates of infection, the DOC would see only 59 cases. He attributes the low numbers inside Pennsylvania state facilities to early quarantines and staff screenings.
“We were very early to giving everyone a mask,” he said. “It’s critical that everyone wears masks to stop the spread.”
DOC officials say 300 staff members are at home in quarantine, and 23 have tested positive for COVID-19.
The DOC is screening all inmates who are released and testing those coming from facilities where there’s been an outbreak. Wetzel emphasized that their time out of prison is temporary.
“Those who are let out under this must serve the remainder of their time,” he said.
Currently, inmates remain in quarantine with very limited out-of-cell time. Phone calls, virtual visits and other activities take place in the cell.
Wetzel said psychologists and peer support counselors are making extra rounds for mental health checks.
“You can only keep people locked in for so long,” he noted.
As for post-lockdown procedures, Wetzel said they are still being developed.