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Inmates’ transfer from SCI-Huntingdon slowed by COVID-19

Pa. Senate panel weighs need for early inmate release bill

(Editor’s note: This story was updated at 11:30 a.m. today to correct inaccurate information provided to the Mirror.)

HARRISBURG — Ninety inmates had been planned for transfer from the State Correctional Institution at Huntingdon where a troublesome COVID-19 outbreak has occurred and the gym was converted into an isolation area.

However, when officials tested the selected inmates for COVID-19 on May 5, 52 returned positive test results. Only 18 inmates who tested negative were transferred May 7 to SCI-Phoenix.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency reprieve policy has led to the release of 151 state prison inmates to what is basically house arrest during the past month, the state Corrections Secretary told a Senate committee Wednesday.

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said seven inmates among the release group have violated the reprieve rules and were sent back to prison.

Another 250 inmates have been released from state prisons during the same period under the routine parole process, said Wetzel.

Wetzel provided those details to senators during a Judiciary Committee hearing about the agency’s efforts to reduce the prison population to lessen COVID-19 exposure. One catalyst was Wolf’s April 10 executive order establishing a temporary reprieve process to empty prisons of non-violent and vulnerable inmates based on set criteria and place them under community supervision.

While the hearing looked at the Wolf administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic during the past two months, participants actively discussed passing new laws to guide inmate release policies in the event of a COVID-19 resurgence this fall or future pandemics.

Senate Judiciary Committee Majority Chair Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, expressed concerns about the constitutionality of using the reprieve process under emergency powers.

Baker said the committee will consider legislation to specifically address the early release of inmates in future emergencies.

“I think we need pressure valve legislation in Pennsylvania,” said Wetzel, referring to his department’s ability to reduce the inmate population in times of crisis.

Senate Minority Judiciary Chairman Larry Farnese, D-Philadelphia, voiced concern about the low number of releases.

“I’m dismayed to find so few have been successfully reprieved,” said Farnese, pointing to the terms of the executive order.

Farnese said that Wolf issued his reprieve order after efforts to reach a legislative solution faltered in early April.

Both state Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm and Greg Rowe, legislative director, for the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said decisions about early release should consider the inmate’s potential for domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse. That doesn’t always show up in a case record, they said.

In one exchange, Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, questioned whether releasing 151 inmates really matters that much in a statewide population of 43,600 inmates.

Wetzel said it matters in cases like SCI Huntingdon where a widespread COVID-19 outbreak had the potential to overwhelm the health system of that rural county.

Across the state system, 227 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 while 160 corrections staffers — or 1 percent of the total workforce — have tested positive, said Wetzel.

In Huntingdon, 155 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, while 47 staff have tested positive, according to the state department of corrections.

The department is projected to spend $45 million from early March to the end of July on COVID-19 mitigation efforts, said Wetzel, indicating that a one-time shot of federal stimulus aid will cover much of those costs.

But Wetzel cautioned that further expenses are likely to be incurred and the federal aid could be a one-time event.

He said the department plans to keep the State Correctional Institution at Retreat in Luzerne County in mothballed status for at least the next two years.

Wolf had ordered the closing of Retreat last winter, but it’s been used during the past two months as a quarantine facility for new inmates to the state corrections system.

Those functions are now being transferred to the state Correctional Institution at Camp Hill, but Retreat will be kept as a reserve facility in case it’s needed for other pandemic issues, said Wetzel.

Ted Johnson, chairman of the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, welcomed the Senate’s confirmation last week of Khadija Diggs and C. James Fox to fill two vacancies on that board.

“That is really going to help with our decision making,” said Johnson indicating it will result in the board being able to reach an additional 150 to 180 decisions a month on parole cases. He said the board has hired three additional hearing examiners to help with the caseload.

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