Reprinted from March 19, 2020, Pittsburgh Post Gazette.
Warning that an outbreak of COVID-19 in state prison facilities would signal a “death sentence” for many inmates, three legal reform groups sent a letter to Pennsylvania officials this week urging immediate action to dramatically reduce the prison population.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, Abolitionist Law Center and Amistad Law Project are asking Gov. Tom Wolf to exercise executive powers to release elderly people and inmates who have serious health complications, as well as direct the Parole Board to work with the Department of Corrections to release as many people on parole “as quickly and safely as possible.”
Until then, thousands of prisoners and staffers across the state’s 24 correctional institutions — which incarcerate approximately 47,000 people — are at risk of being at the “epicenter” of the pandemic as unavoidable close contact exacerbates the spread of the virus, the groups warned.
Without a significant reduction in the prison population, the groups fear that COVID-19 will “devastate” the elderly and immuno-compromised inside the facilities, then spread throughout the surrounding communities via the prison employees, said Abolitionist Law Center legal director Bret Grote — who painted a picture on a Thursday conference call of infirmaries overwhelmed with sick people and inmates transported to already-overwhelmed hospitals nearby.
“Right now, people inside [the prisons] are scared. They’re apprehensive,” Mr. Grote said. “They’re even more isolated than normal, and they’re in need of action from state officials.”
The governor can lead that action by exploring emergency measures, the groups say, starting by releasing as many elderly and vulnerable inmates “as quickly and as safely as possible,” said Nyssa Taylor, the state ACLU’s criminal justice policy counsel. Vulnerable inmates, according to the groups, include those who have cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory illness, high blood pressure or cancer — or those who are pregnant.
The Parole Board, meanwhile, “has the immediate ability to release people who have already served their minimum term of incarceration and the authority to grant parole…’when the interests of justice require,’” the groups wrote, urging the paroling of all inmates who have served their minimum sentence and have been determined to be low risk, have demonstrated rehabilitation or have been misconduct free for a certain length of time. They also suggested waiving hearings for people who already meet the guidelines for parole.
For cases in front of the Board of Pardons, the groups are asking Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who chairs the board, to convene an emergency session to conduct a merit review with a focus on vulnerable populations — as well as conduct public hearings “to recommend as many people for commutation as possible.”
There are currently no positive cases of COVID-19 in the state prison system, said Maria Finn, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
“We are fully compliant with [the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines for testing,” Ms. Finn wrote in an email. “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.”
The ACLU, though, has pointed to a death row inmate at SCI-Phoenix in Montgomery County whose attorneys say is showing symptoms of COVID-19. The attorneys for Walter J. Ogrod have filed an emergency motion to request his release from prison and for him to receive outside medical care.
Mr. Ogrod, 55, hasn’t yet been tested for the coronavirus, said Andy Hoover, spokesman for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
“His attorney has filed for emergency relief to have him released from prison, as the district attorney in his case recently filed to have his conviction and sentence vacated because he is likely innocent,” Mr. Hoover said.
The last public announcement from the Department of Corrections came last week, when it canceled visits to inmates in state prisons for a period of 14 days beginning March 13.
“We are closely monitoring our entire system and individual facilities daily,” Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel said in a statement at the time. “We are taking steps to protect our employees and our inmates.”
Several Allegheny County groups are involved in reviewing the process in which prisoners here could be released.
A joint statement released by the criminal court administrators, the Public Defender’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office said they are “continually reviewing cases to determine which inmates are appropriate for release. Those cases are then addressed in Motions Court or reviewed with the assigned Judge depending on the circumstances.”
The statement added that the “review is not limited to just those inmates with health problems, although those cases are being considered first. The Public Defender’s Office is working to identify all non-violent inmates held only on cash bails.”
“So far, 189 inmate releases have been sent to the jail. Releases are being processed by the jail as they are received, and the same process related to discharge and release followed as is done traditionally.”