Hundreds of inmates are being released early from state, county and local correctional facilities in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the region’s jails and prisons.
Most of those inmates, however, are not being tested for the virus upon release, leaving the potential for spreading the virus in the communities where they are heading back.
“We're dealing with a situation where people have to have a lot of flexibility and understanding,” Philadelphia’s Chief Defender Keir Bradford-Grey said. “If family members want their loved one home, they're going to have to understand that they did not have a test coming out of that prison.”
The Philadelphia Defender’s Association has been working with the District Attorney’s Office to approve the release or early parole of hundreds of inmates. Since special hearings – in which a judge considers the motion to release an inmate – started last week, 531 inmates have been released.
In addition, the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund has helped get others out by negotiating reduced bail.
At the state level, Gov. Wolf signed an executive order allowing for up to 1,800 state inmates to be released early or temporarily. The first seven inmates were released Wednesday, four of which were charged in the Philadelphia suburbs.
And New Jersey Gov. Murphy also signed an order granting temporary reprieve to inmates who are 60-years-old or older, have a high risk medical condition or have sentences that expire within three months.
Officials in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Philadelphia say that inmates serving time for crimes such as murder, rape and sexual assult will not be eligible for early release. In many cases, the reprieve for inmates approved to be released will temporarily suspend their sentences until the state’s emergency declaration is over, and they will be expected to finish serving their sentence at that time.
COVID-19 Takes Hold Behind Bars
The idea is to remove inmates who are medically vulnerable from the state’s prisons and jails and either send them to home confinement or place them in facilities that are lower risk, such as halfway homes.
Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John E. Wetzel said, though, that five halfway homes in the state have been in quarantine and not allowing new residents because of virus outbreaks there.
COVID-19 has taken a deadly hold of some of the city and state’s corrections facilities. A Philadelphia man who was serving a sentence at SCI Phoenix in Montgomery County died April 8 of the virus.
On Tuesday, a Philadelphia female inmate died of the virus. She had been housed at Riverside Correctional Facility.
Dr. Arnold Baskies, a general surgeon in Moorestown, New Jersey, said that because of the close quarters that prisoners are housed, they are already at higher risk of contracting the virus. In addition, he said, the inmate population are majority black and Latino which are high risk.
“Releasing them without knowing more about them is a problem,” Baskies said, suggesting the prisons at least do a random sample of 100 inmates to get a sense of whether they have a problem on their hands.
He compared the release of prisoners to the people who were on the cruise ships where outbreaks occurred. Those people were tested before they left the cruise and then were quarantined, he said.
Philadelphia’s jails, which have been decreasing in population over the last few years and are down to 4,020 inmates, have had dozens of inmates test positive. Prison Commissioner Blanche Carney said in an interview Wednesday that 56 inmates had tested positive for the virus. She declined to say how many corrections officers or staff have tested positive, following the city’s policy to not disclose the number of city employees who have tested positive.
Eric Hill, the prison’s labor union business agent, said as of Tuesday, 43 officers had tested positive. He warned that those are self-reported numbers and the true number could be higher.
Hill said that he worries there may be cross-contamination in the city jails from staff working together and staff and inmates interacting. For the safety of everyone, he thinks any inmate being released should be tested.
“We believe and we request that those persons be tested prior to their release back into society so as not to release someone that may be tentatively infectious to society, that has been segregated from society for a prolonged period of time,” Hill said.
'Presume Everyone Has It'
Upon release, city inmates simply get a copy of the city’s health order explaining COVID-19 and where to seek treatment if they become infected post-release.
“If someone is symptomatic, of course, we would treat them. But we're not going to treat or test everyone leaving outside, you know, upon release,” said Carney, the city's prison commissioner.
Carney said CDC guidelines do not require testing because testing is limited.
“It doesn't give me concern because I've said from the beginning, universal precautions,” she said. “You presume everyone has it and you educate. And so you really give people that information. Also, all of our inmates who are released are released with a mask.”
Pennsylvania state prisoners will only be tested if they are believed to be at risk of the virus and if they are leaving a facility that has positive cases of COVID-19. So far, only SCI-Phoenix has both inmates (17) and staff (7) who have tested positive for the virus.
There are some other state prisons that have between one and three staffers each who have tested positive, for a total of 24 system-wide.
For inmates leaving facilities with no known positive cases, they get a temperature check and routine screening questions.
“We have checks and balances in place and we are confident that we are not adding to the challenges in the communities by releasing these individuals,” said Wetzel, the state secretary of corrections.
He added that “It doesn’t make sense” to test inmates who are not showing symptoms.
Inmates in New Jersey will only be released after a review of prison medical records and a recommendation by an Emergency Medical Review Committee. However, Gov. Murphy said in an interview Thursday that inmates not showing symptoms would likely not be tested.
Bradford-Grey, Philadelphia’s chief defender, said that there are no plans in place to track inmates' health and potential contraction of virus after they leave the corrections system.
“That is going to have to be up to them to go get tested, or at least the ones in the family that are inviting them back into their home are going to have to understand that these people were in a prison where COVID-19 was spreading and that they could potentially have this and they have to make their own plans on how they deal with that,” she said. ”That's the unfortunate reality.”