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Fighting COVID-19 a top priority for corrections system

State prison population at lowest total since ’02

HARRISBURG — Fighting the COVID-19 pandemic remains the top priority for a state corrections system experiencing the largest one-year drop in inmates in its history, Corrections Secretary John Wetzel told lawmakers Wednesday.

During a House Appropriations Committee budget hearing, Wetzel fielded questions from lawmakers about the death toll at the 25 state correctional institutions, flaws in reporting about COVID-19 cases and plans to vaccinate 39,500 inmates and 17,000 corrections staff.

The prison population has dropped by 6,382 inmates from December 2019 to December 2020. This is the lowest number of inmates since 2002.

At the hearing’s start, Rep. Timothy O’Neal, R-Washington, asked why there’s a significant increase in operating costs while the inmate population is declining.

The department would receive a 2.5% increase under its proposed $2.6 billion budget for fiscal year 2021-22, Wetzel said.

He added that cost-drivers include pensions and benefits for employees, as well as the need to address issues involving an inmate population where one-third have mental health issues, one-quarter are older than 50 and a large percentage are considered at-risk for contracting the virus.

During the current fiscal year, the department was allocated $1.2 billion in federal COVID-19 relief money to cover salaries and benefits for staff handling duties that have changed significantly due to the pandemic.

The department anticipates federal reimbursement for $167 million of costs related to the pandemic such as overtime, medical supplies and personal protective equipment.

As of Feb. 10, the department reported 4,048 total COVID positive staff cases (active and recovered) and four staff deaths, and 9,661 total COVID positive inmate cases (active and recovered) and 101 inmate deaths.

The department plans to roll out an improved public dashboard providing COVID statistics on March 1 after complaints that an earlier dashboard had flawed information.

The department has faced a situation where nearly 3,000 corrections staffers were off work at one time due to COVID-19 exposure, Wetzel said. Currently, about 500 staffers are off work.

The department is gearing up for a vaccination program for inmates and staff. The first vaccinations took place Tuesday at SCI Laurel Highlands, one of three prisons with a long-term care unit, said Wetzel.

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