PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Former Pa. Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell tested positive for the coronavirus days after being released from Philadelphia county jail. She’s one of hundreds of inmates who are not being tested before getting sent home early in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19.
“I literally prayed every day: ‘God, please don’t let me be sick in here,'” Johnson-Harrell said.
She spent just over two months living in the Riverside Correctional Facility on State Road.
In January, the former Democratic state representative pleaded guilty to mishandling funds from a nonprofit she founded, and she negotiated a deal with the Pennsylvania Attorney General to serve 11.5 to 23 months in county prison. With good behavior, she was slated to get out in May, after serving three months.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit — and began to spread behind the wall.
“There was no sanitizer. There were no gloves,” Johnson-Harrell said. “And women didn’t get masks on my unit — until the day before I left.”
Johnson-Harrell says she lived in G Unit, two cells away from where 48-year-old Yvonne Harris slept. Harris died the morning of April 14, four months before she was scheduled to be paroled. Her convictions, including assault, prevented her from qualifying for early release.
“Beautiful woman. She was anxious to get back to her son. We all cried when we heard of her passing,” former inmate Adrian Perry said.
Perry, 41, is serving an eight- to 23-month sentence. She was supposed to get out on March 4, but she was released from Philadelphia county jail on April 18 after serving 9 months.
“So many people are in there who were supposed to be released, but they are sitting there ... sitting there,” she said. "And then there’s this virus. It’s a lot.”
As of April 17, at least 113 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 while serving time in Philadelphia prisons, and one inmate has died. Currently, 63 inmates remain positive after dozens have recovered.
According to a Philadelphia courts spokesperson, between April 7 and April 17, nearly 500 inmates were released in an effort to lower prison populations and stop the spread of the virus.
Johnson-Harrell says the numbers seem low to her.
"Because they didn’t test you unless you were showing [all the] symptoms,” she said.
Johnson-Harrell says she worked in the kitchen and her temperature was checked daily. She says she was tested once for COVID-19, and the result came back negative.
When she was released on April 7, she said, her temperature was checked and she was sent on her way. While at home, her symptoms worsened. Eventually she called her doctor, who suggested that she be tested. Results came back positive.
“I pretty much knew I had it,” she says, “I had all of the symptoms- except for the high temperatures.”
Perry says she has no symptoms of COVID-19, but she will undergo free testing at Enon Tabernacle Church on Monday.
“I want to keep my family safe,” Perry said. “We could only do what we could do while we were in there. We didn’t have proper gear to stay safe.”
According to the city’s website, inmates are continuously screened through temperature checks. They are also given masks and live on lockdown — spending 23 hours a day eating meals, taking medications and more inside their cells.
When inmates are released, per city officials, their temperatures are taken and they are allowed to take their masks home.
Many believe that is not enough.
“The union has requested that the prison consider testing inmates for those sent home on early release,” says Eric Hill, Business Manager for Local 159, representing 1,800 corrections officers working in Philadelphia prison facilities. “That recommendation was rejected.”
Hill claims at least 43 corrections officers have tested positive for the coronavirus. The city has refused to confirm that figure and, as a policy, has declined to release data on the number of city workers who have tested positive for COVID-19. Since March 16, the number of inmates held in Philadelphia prisons has been reduce 16%, with the current total inmate population at 3,964 as of April 16.
“This has come about later than some would have liked to see and is a smaller reduction than in some other jurisdictions,” said Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner on Friday. “But this is a positive development nonetheless.”
Krasner says the courts, the Defender Association and his office are continuing the work of identifying people who can be safely released without endangering public safety.
Notably, the Kenny administration has significantly reduced Philadelphia’s prison population since 2015. In July of that year, the city’s jails reported 8,082 individuals incarcerated. Today, fewer that half that number are currently incarcerated.
Johnson-Harrell believes more testing should be done to stop the spread of the coronavirus behind the wall and in the community.
“The women who are leaving should be tested to make sure that they are not bringing this virus to the community,” she says.