Philadelphia jails report 8 new coronavirus cases in one day, taking total to 20 inmate infections

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — City officials reported eight new coronavirus cases in Philadelphia jails in just one day, bringing the total to 20 inmate infections as of Thursday. The announcement comes as more advocates demand answers.

"There's been no answers. No answers at all," said Shaka Johnson, an attorney who represents dozens of inmates in the Philadelphia jails and Pennsylvania state prison system. He said his phone has been ringing off the hook in recent days, from inmates and their family members inquiring about the prisons’ COVID-19 response.

"They are calling and singing the same refrain. ‘We are concerned, we are scared,’ ” he added.

Calls to the outside world have told tales of fear and anger behind the wall. In-person visitation was suspended to stop the spread of COVID-19 and inmate movement inside Philadelphia prisons has been limited. 

The only connection to the outside world is calls, emails and virtual visits through video, but the measures have not stopped rumors from spreading.

"There are 130 people who are on State Road who are 60 and over and there are countless others who are medically vulnerable," said Claire Shubik-Richards, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society. "If we had information we could calm some nerves.”

The city of Philadelphia announced on Thursday that 20 inmates in city jails have tested positive for COVID-19, but officials have refused to provide information regarding the number of staff members infected with the virus.   

According to the prisons website, Philadelphia prisons have added staff protocols, including temperature and symptom checks, to keep the coronavirus from coming into the jails. 

In addition, to protect prison staff, those assigned to intake wear gloves and masks and all new inmates are quarantined for 14 days. Inmates who report symptoms are also quarantined and those exposed are tested per CDC guidelines.   

Shubik-Richards said more transparency and inmate population reduction is crucial.

"Their refusal to provide clear updates is contributing to a sense of worry and anxiety and it's fueling rumors," she said, "and I understand they are flooded with calls right now, but they can short circuit that by posting a daily update like other prison systems have done."

Shubik-Richards said she'd like to see updates with the number of infections, the number of tests taken and the number of positive and negative results. 

She also wants to know which facilities have positives and negatives and which facilities are locked down.

"This would provide the press and public with enough to know that the situation is being handled," she said. 

Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity and other faith leaders sent a letter to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf Thursday joining justice reform advocates in the call to drastically reduce prison populations. 

Earlier this week, the ACLU of Pennsylvania petitioned the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for emergency intervention to free certain categories of inmates. On Wednesday, juvenile justice advocates also petitioned the high court to release youth in detention after a staff member at the JJC tested positive for coronavirus. 

With regard to reducing inmate population in city jails, Managing Director Brian Abernathy Thursday told reporters the city is working proactively and progressively to petition the court for release of vulnerable and low-risk individuals.

As for infections in state prisons, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections reported three additional COVID-19 infections among staff, bringing the total to seven positive staff cases and two positive inmate cases. 

DOC Secretary John Wetzel implemented a systemwide quarantine earlier this week to stop the spread of the virus.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice demanding transparency on the preparedness and response plans to prevent further spread of COVID-19 in federal prison. 

On March 28, the Bureau of Prisons reported the first death of an incarcerated person due to coronavirus at FCI Oakdale in Louisiana.