Pennsylvania Department of Corrections lays out plans to stop coronavirus spread after 4 staff, 2 inmates test positive

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections instituted a system-wide quarantine this week as the number of COVID-19 infections tick up. 

Secretary John Wetzel told reporters that as of Wednesday morning, two inmates at SCI Phoenix have tested positive for the coronavirus, as well as four staff members at unidentified locations. 

The system-wide quarantine, he said, will limit the spread.

“Most of the out-of-cell time will take place on the housing unit and in small groups so we can institute social distancing where we can,” said Wetzel. “We are really trying to achieve this concept of social distancing to the extent possible.”

He said inmates will eat in their cells. The only connection to the outside world will be through virtual visitation via Zoom, as well as through five free phone calls and emails each week. 

He also said staff started wearing cloth masks two weeks ago and there are other protocols, such as checking temperatures, use of gloves and N95 masks for intake and in the infirmary, and more.

“Early on, the assumption was if coronavirus was going to come in, it was an outside-in threat,” said Wetzel, “so in taking temperatures in all our buildings, coupled with masks, we thought would delay it coming in.”

Wetzel said they are doing inmate symptom checks for all who have come in contact with a positive case. So far, just over 20 inmates have been tested for the virus and most were negative.

The DOC has an inmate population of about 44,000 inmates. Of that number, Wetzel notes 12,000 are on a list to be considered for release by the Pennsylvania Parole Board.

These individuals have completed their minimum sentence, are in prison on technical parole violations, are medically vulnerable or are otherwise low-risk. 

Last month, DOC officials said 576 inmates were released, but in a typical month, 1,400 or so inmates are let go.  

Wetzel noted that housing and release plans must be implemented to ensure safe return of inmates to the community.

Philadelphia officials announced Wednesday that 12 inmates tested positive for the coronavirus inside of Philadelphia prisons. They would not say how many staff have received the diagnosis.

Earlier this week, the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit seeking the release of medically vulnerable inmates in city jails, as well as those detained on cash bail for non-violent crimes and other low-risk offenses. Protesters also hit the streets in a car caravan demonstration, asking Gov. Tom Wolf and Mayor Jim Kenney to take action to free as many people as possible before COVID-19 spreads in the prisons.

Prisons in New York and Illinois have seen swift spread of the virus once inside of the prisons, jumping from just a handful of few cases to scores in just a matter of days.