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Blair prison visitation to restart

HOLLIDAYSBURG — The Blair County Prison intends to introduce a modified visitation schedule with inmates starting July 27.

The prison, which halted visitation March 17 because of the coronavirus pandemic, is ready to try resuming what used to be a routine activity.

“We’re going to give it our best effort … to let the outside back into our facility,” Warden Abbie Tate told the prison board, which convened through telephone and video connections Thursday.

To date, the prison has had no positive COVID-19 test results among inmates or staff. While the facility’s population reached a high of 386 inmates in March, fear of the coronavirus spread prompted efforts leading to inmate transfers and releases, thereby reducing the population. As of Thursday, the facility was housing 262 inmates.

While the prison continues to administer COVID-19 tests to newly admitted inmates and inmates pending transfer, the warden said it’s been “a while” since a COVID-19 test was administered to a county inmate with illness symptoms.

She also said that it’s been two months or more since a county inmate has been in quarantine housing.

In light of that success, Tate reported that July 27 will be the starting date to resume visitation under a modified schedule that differs from the prior schedule.

For instance, a two-hour visit will be reduced to one hour, she said, so there is time for cleaning the visitation area.

Tate credited Deputy Warden James McMahon for working with the prison staff on efforts permitting visitation to resume in light of the ongoing pandemic. She mentioned the initiative last month when addressing the prison board and was ready with details Thursday for what is to be an evolving effort.

“We feel this is a good first step,” Tate said.

Prison board Chairman A.C. Stickel endorsed the effort and commended Tate and prison staff.

“It is important to start getting visitors in,” Stickel said.

Since the coronavirus pandemic ignited concerns and prompted the county prison lockdown, inmates have had little to no contact with anyone outside the facility. Inmate programs run by community volunteers have been on hold. For the fourth consecutive month, reports show no participation in those programs aimed at helping inmates improve their parenting skills, deal with drug and alcohol issues or to prepare for release.

Monthly tours of the facility, by the Blair County Chapter of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, whose members talk to inmates, have been on hold because of the pandemic. That group is maintaining communication with Deputy Warden Jay Whitesel, Tate said.

In addition, fewer inmates are being transported to the courthouse for court proceedings because a video connection has been established. Because of that connection, an inmate, in select cases, can remain at the prison and communicate with those in a courtroom.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.

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