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Prison hopes to restore volunteer programs

Concerns about COVID-19 led to suspension of initiatives

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Efforts are being made to restore some volunteer programs inside the Blair County Prison, possibly starting in October, Warden Abbie Tate told the prison board Thursday.

“We talk it about daily,” Tate said when Commissioner Amy Webster, a prison board member, asked during a prison board meeting when inmate programs might resume.

The prison’s programs generally include drug and alcohol counseling, religious services, female parenting and C-PREP, which helps prepare inmates for their return to the community.

When COVID-19 cases began surfacing locally in March, the prison halted all programs as a way to lessen the chance of someone bringing the virus into the prison where it could easily spread. So far, the prison has reported no positive COVID-19 results among the tested inmates.

Tate said she and her staff are willing to consider resuming volunteer programs because so far, other initiatives have gone OK. As of July 27, the prison restored inmate visitation practices. It’s also allowing probation officers and attorneys to come into the prison to speak with inmates.

COVID-19 practices — including frequent cleaning and social distancing — have reduced the space available for these visits, Tate said. But because they’re going OK, she said she would like to see the prison resume haircuts.

“We have some shaggy-headed inmates,” she told the board.

As for volunteer programs, Tate named the second week of October as a target date for resuming drug and alcohol counseling programs at the prison. If that goes OK, then maybe the religious volunteers could be next, she said.

Judge Elizabeth Doyle, who is also part of the prison board, also asked Tate what would need to be done to resume offering work release as an option to inmates. She said it’s a question that attorneys have been raising on behalf of their clients.

In the past, participation in the prison’s work-release program has varied. The program, run by the prison, allowed some inmates to regularly leave for a specific job site and return, as long as they arranged transportation and followed prison rules.

“It’s one of our most rehabilitative programs,” Doyle said.

Tate, however, expressed doubt about resuming work release for lack of quarantine space. Because of COVID-19, newly arriving inmates are quarantined for 14 days, and because the prison’s population has been increasing, she said the facility is running low on space for those quarantines.

Because work release inmates would be exposed to others while working within the community, she said they would have to be separated from other inmates.

“Right now, there’s no way to quarantine them from the rest of the population,” she said.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.

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