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Attorneys seek inmates’ release

Petitions filed on behalf of 62 county prisoners

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Blair County’s public defenders have filed emergency petitions on behalf of 62 county prison inmates, seeking their release in light of a potential COVID-19 outbreak and prison conditions.

The petitions, with references to the aged prison’s high inmate population, shared living conditions and small medical unit, proposes options such as unsecured bail, sentence modifications, probationary changes or other measures allowing inmates to gain release from a facility where the virus could spread.

“We’re trying to get people out of jail who are there on technical violations, have low bail or may be near the end of their sentences,” Assistant Public Defender Julia Burke said Friday.

One of those inmates is Rita Lair of Claysburg, sentenced last August to 10 to 20 months in prison for offenses involving abuse of a 75-year-old woman suffering from Alzheimer’s. At 62 years old, COVID-19 presents a heightened risk for Lair, Burke stated in her petition.

District Attorney Richard Consiglio said he and his staff are willing to review the petitions with the public defenders to see if they can reach agreements on any requests.

President Judge Elizabeth Doyle met Friday with Consiglio, First Assistant District Attorney Pete Weeks and Chief Public Defender Russ Montgomery about the petitions.

They’re willing to try to reach agreements, Doyle said later in the day, but if they don’t, then those requests will have to be presented to a judge.

In evaluating the requests, the judge will have to consider the offenses, the victims and the options, she said, while recognizing safety issues on two fronts, not only in the community but also in the jail.

Consiglio said his office remains committed to public safety protection and justice for the victims.

The inmates need protection, too, Montgomery said, from a virus that can quickly spread.

“There’s no social distancing at the jail,” Montgomery said in reference to one recommended measure to keep the virus from spreading.

In the petitions, the public defenders acknowledged that outbreaks of infectious disease are an ever-present concern at the prison. In December, because of flu, as many as 50 inmates in the main housing block had fevers of more than 100 degrees. While that housing unit was locked down with restricted access, healthy inmates were not separated from sick ones, the petition states.

The petition also points out that inmates are generally housed in 11 housing blocks, with two to 14 inmates per cell, sharing sinks, toilets and telephones.

The medical unit at the prison is very small with no specific housing for ill inmates.

“UPMC Altoona has indicated that it will not accept (ill) inmates from Blair County Prison unless the person requires a ventilator,” the petition states. “That means that even gravely ill inmates will have to be treated within the prison walls.”

Warden Abbie Tate said Thursday, when the prison’s population was reported at 367, that the prison staff is monitoring all inmates coming into and going out of the facility. Rather than transporting county inmates to the courthouse for proceedings on Friday, the court started depending on video transmissions.

“We do have plans to segregate inmates if they display symptoms,” Tate said.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.

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