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I-Team: Impact of COVID-19 on PA prison systems

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MAHANOY, SCHUYLKILL COUNTY (WBRE/WYOU-TV) — COVID-19 continues to be a major problem in Pennsylvania’s prisons. The number of COVID-19 cases continue to rise among staff and inmates. 

State lawmakers are calling for more action from the Department of Corrections to address the problem. They are also questioning why people with pre-existing conditions will have to wait for the COVID-19 vaccination.

The I-Team went looking for answers regarding the prison COVID situation as well as what appears to be a longer wait for people with pre-existing conditions to get the vaccine.

“They are not testing anyone. You have to tell them you are sick and nobody’s telling them they are sick,” said Jay, an inmate at SCI Mahanoy.

The I-Team talked with Jay. We interviewed him when he called his mom this week. As of Tuesday, 80 of the 2,000 inmates tested positive for COVID-19, along with 14 of the 580 staff members.

Jay, who asked us not to use his last name, is serving time on drug conviction. He says he and fellow inmates believe that more has to be done to stop the rising COVID-19 numbers here.

“They need to test everyone. Everyone needs to be tested. They tested us one time when they bring people to the jail, that test is not enough,” Jay said.

His mother says she fears she will get a call that her son is positive for COVID.

“How do you deal with this problem when you have them all together? You’re not separated,” Elizabeth, Jay’s mother, said.

 A spokesperson for the state Department of Corrections issued a statement to the I-Team.

“SCI Mahanoy completed antigen testing on their inmate population in mid-November. Any inmate with a positive antigen test were then PCR tested and relocated to an isolated block pending the PCR results.

SCI Mahanoy has implemented COVID mitigation procedures that are required statewide. Staff has also have the option of being tested anytime they request in addition to daily screening.”

Maria Bevins, Press Secretary for PA DOC

State representative Aaron Kaufer offers this recommendation to state officials.

“I think one of the major pieces of this is that there have been transfers of inmates in and out of the prison. I, along with other legislators and the PSCOA, Corrections Officers Union, trying to advice the DOC it was a bad idea for inmate transfers,” Kaufer said.

According to the latest state COVID vaccination plans, prison staff and inmates will be vaccinated in the next round of vaccinations. But Rep. Kaufer says they should be moved up to the current 1A level, as should people with pre-existing health conditions receive vaccines in the third round, 1C level.

“I think it was a step in the wrong direction but we should be prioritizing those people who are most at risk most vulnerable they should be moving up,” Kaufer said.

The Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, which represents 11,000 staff members, say they are also urging the state Department of Corrections to stop the transfer of inmates from facility to facility.

The I-Team reached out to the governor’s office and the state Department of Health for comment on this report. The Dept. of Health responded with this statement:

The Department of Health manages the vaccine plan and phases of distribution – inmates and Corrections Officers are included in 1B.

Incarcerated people have higher rates of underlying conditions than community populations and as such, inmates are also more likely to experience severe complications or death if they contract the virus.

Any congregate setting, including prisons, has challenges associated with mitigation efforts such as social distancing. Visitation is also restricted and this type of isolation can cause mental health difficulties for many.

PA DEPT. OF HEALTH PRESS OFFICE

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