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Blair reduces inmate numbers

County prison officials working to prevent virus

HOLLIDAYSBURG — The inmate population at the Blair County Prison fell to 255 last week — down by 122 from 377 reported three weeks ago — because inmates were released to reduce the threat of a COVID-19 outbreak in the facility.

In some cases, released inmates were transferred to inpatient drug and alcohol treatment facilities.

In others, they were released with conditions to be monitored by the county parole and probation officers.

More recently, the decline can be tracked to April 6, when the state Department of Corrections accepted 19 men and 16 women from the county prison.

“That was a huge help,” Warden Abbie Tate said.

The county transfers inmates to the state system based on sentence length, with state sentences typically beginning at two years. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the state had temporarily halted transfers but has since resumed.

Tate reported the inmate population numbers last week to the Blair County Prison Board during a special meeting convened by teleconference, with participants conversing from their offices and the prison.

President Judge Elizabeth Doyle, a member of the prison board, asked for the meeting so she could respond to a state Supreme Court directive issued April 3, describing COVID-19 as “an undeniable threat to the health of inmates, the county correctional staff and their families and the surrounding communities.”

In response, Doyle outlined ongoing efforts inside the prison to plan for, to prevent and if necessary, to address a COVID-19 outbreak.

“We have plans of what to do if people become symptomatic and if we get a positive case,” Tate told the board.

Doyle, in her response to the Supreme Court, directed county leaders to continue collaborations that have reduced the prison’s population. She also urged them to maintain their respective roles in advocating for and against the release of inmates. The court also remains available to address concerns, the judge said.

During the prison board meeting, Chief Public Defender Russ Montgomery praised efforts made to date that have reduced the prison’s inmate population. But with 250-plus inmates, he said it needs to be reduced even more.

“It’s still tight quarters down there,” Montgomery said. “The consequences of not doing more could be bad.”

The state Department of Health describes COVID-19 as an extremely contagious virus causing respiratory illnesses and risk of death. As of Friday, the state confirmed 19,979 COVID-19 cases, including nine in Blair County, and 416 deaths, none of which have been Blair County residents.

Montgomery, after advocating further inmate reductions, proposed the county buy more ankle bracelets, an option allowing inmates to be released on house arrest and have their whereabouts monitored through the bracelet.

Doyle said that a supervision fund she monitors may have money for ankle bracelets. When she asked Montgomery if the public defender’s office could provide matching funds, Montgomery said he would look into that.

District Attorney Pete Weeks also asked about more use of video transmission for county prison inmates seeking bail changes. While video transmission has been established, transmission and prison space remain issues, so sheriff deputies continue to transport inmates to and from the courthouse.

As for bail changes, county judges are reviewing cases individually, with several rejections rendered this week based on alleged offenses, associated risks and the status of the case.

While defense attorneys have criticized and raised questions about the prison’s conditions, one inmate told Judge Wade A. Kagarise that he has access to warm water and soap within his four-inmate cell.

Tate admitted to the prison board that inside some cells, it would be “difficult” to maintain the recommended social distancing practices. But there is enough room for social distancing in shared prison areas referred to as day rooms, she said.

Tate also told the board that the maintenance staff has increased its cleaning schedule in response to the coronavirus and regularly disinfects shared resources, including telephones and kiosks. Because in-person visits are canceled, inmates are being offered one free 5-minute phone call per week.

Within the state Supreme Court directive that Doyle addressed, the state court recommended reliance on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Interim Guidance on Management of Coronavirus Diseases in Correctional and Detention Facilities.

“I’ve read the guidelines multiple times,” Tate said.

Other efforts to combat the virus include the wearing of masks, now part of the prison uniform, Tate said.

Disposable surgical masks, she said, are being offered to everyone who leaves and returns to the prison, including inmates who wore the masks to plea court hearings held Thursday at the courthouse.

The prison relies on Prime Care Medical, a Harrisburg-based company, to monitor inmate health and offer treatment. That company worked with county prison personnel last winter to restrict flu-stricken inmates to one housing area.

“We will treat (inmates) at this facility … unless they’re in respiratory distress,” Tate said.

In addition, the prison continues its practice of evaluating the health of newly-admitted inmates. Because of the pandemic, it now quarantines new arrivals for seven days. Under past practice, new arrivals were quarantined for 48 hours.

“The longer we keep it out, the better off we’ll be,” the warden told the prison board.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.

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