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Concerns about COVID-19 precautions in Pennsylvania prisons

Houtzdale, PA – People are concerned that their loved ones in prison could be at risk for COVID-19, especially in an enclosed environment.

We heard from one woman who wished to remain anonymous, who was worried about her fiance who is an inmate in SCI Houtzdale. She says the inmates are on lockdown 23 hours a day.

Her loved one says he believes there is COVID-19 in the prison and he himself was sent to the hospital with a fever but then sent back to the prison and put into general population. She says her loved one told her they are not allowed to have hand sanitizer because of the alcohol content, they only have one mask, and he and his cellmate are sharing one bar of soap.

Although officials from the Department of Corrections were unavailable for an audio interview, they did respond with a statement saying that each SCI location has specific quarantine and COVID-19 precautions, screenings, and protocol in place. They say that every DOC employee has been working for weeks preparing for this virus and working to mitigate it as best they can in all facilities.

The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association is working on legislation that could identify non-violent inmates with low-level crimes who are nearing parole eligibility who could be considered for an early transfer to a transitional facility or to house arrest.

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Statement from the PA Department of Corrections

Good morning, we are fully compliant with CDC guidelines for testing. Our inmates have access to robust medical staff/operations not only in the facilities but we also have a centralized contracted doctor, Nicholas Scharff, who is the former chief of clinical services here at the PA Department of Corrections. He was brought back as a special advisor to the Secretary because of his specialty in public health.

In addition, due to confidentiality, any information regarding testing in our facilities and those complete results will be at the discretion of the PA Dept. of Health, as they have in other cases around the state.

Please understand that DOC officials, and by that I mean EVERY DOC/parole employee, has been working for weeks preparing for this virus and working to mitigate it as best we can in our facilities. We are doing all we can to delay the virus from spreading.

We have increased hand sanitizer availability throughout our facilities. We have been providing free anti-bacterial soap for inmates. CI is making about 4,000 bars of soap per week.

Staff and inmates both have masks. We are utilizing existing equipment in DOC stock coupled with stock being produced by DOC to take proactive steps to mitigate the effects of COVID19 on staff, their families and inmates. We have nearly a quarter of inmate population who are vulnerable and high risk of catching COVID-19, and the implications go far beyond the walls of our prisons.

The proactive steps we are taking are in the best interest of our brave staff, the community and inmates alike.

Each institution has a plan for isolation of ill inmate-patients, quarantine of those who may have been exposed, enhanced cleaning of the institution, and maximal efforts to prevent the illness from reaching the population, including screening at the door of everyone who enters the facility.

Much of this information is on our website. We are providing daily updates. If it’s not on the website then we may not be permitted to release it.