The Morning Call (Sunday)
Coronavirus rages in prisons
Guards infected as well as inmates
Two months, that’s how long the inmate spent in Lehigh County Jail before he was tested for COVID-19.
He was admitted to the jail in mid-October on a parole violation after he stopped reporting for mandatory drug testing in the pandemic and the system caught up with him when he overdosed. After that, he said, he was quarantined for nearly a month but wasn’t tested for COVID-19 until Dec. 7, which is when he found out that he and many others in his housing unit
had the infection.
“The only way we are being monitored is through temperature checks every few days. But I never even had a fever, most people didn’t actually who tested positive for COVID,” said the inmate, whodid not want his name used for fear of retaliation.
Across Pennsylvania and the U.S., the coronavirus is spread
ing rapidly through prisons and jails, where communal living is standard and social distancing is nearly impossible. On Thursday, the Lehigh Valley saw its first inmate death from the virus when a 54-year-old man being held on assault charges and a state parole violation died at St.
Luke’s Hospital-Allentown, the prison reported.
The coronavirus infection rate in Pennsylvania prisons is nearly 2½ times the rate among the state’s overall population, according to an analysis by The Marshall Project, a news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system, with Associated Press. By Dec. 15, at least 276,235 inmates in state and federal prisons across the country had tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the site.
Pennsylvania has reported more than 6,000 cases, or 1,356 per 10,000 inmates. There have been at least 48 inmate deaths across the state and more than 1,700 across the country, The Marshall Project’s analysis shows.
The virus also is spreading among prison staff, with corrections officers particularly hard hit. The Marshall Project counted more than 67,800 prison staff infections nationwide, including 113 deaths — three in Pennsylvania. In one sense, the virus has united officers, inmates and reformists as all three demand that state and county officials do more to mitigate COVID-19 in prisons.
“We need more people to act, and until that happens we are just going to see an increase in cases and increases in death,” said Celeste Trusty, Pennsylvania policy director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which advocates for criminal justice reform. “We saw such an increase in October and November and that’s not OK.”
FAMM and other criminal justice agencies are calling for weekly rapid testing of employees and inmates, and for elderly and vulnerable inmates to receive medical parole. Others want the state to stop transferring inmates between prisons, and for judges to stop ordering jail time for minor probation and parole violations, such as the one that put the Lehigh County inmate back behind bars, where he contracted a mild case of the coronavirus that he may have spread to others.
To protect the inmates, Lehigh, Northampton, Monroe and other county prisons have imposed lockdowns, keeping inmates in their cells or in small pods or groups, with showers and phone calls among their few activities. Inmates no longer eat in communal settings. But two corrections officers and two inmates in Lehigh County Jail say those protections are inadequate — there isn’t enough coronavirus testing of guards and inmates and there isn’t enough being done to weed out the sick among them.
Backing up their assertion are the numbers. In Lehigh County Jail, COVID-19 cases have exploded. Laura Grammes, the county spokesperson, said 32 inmates had tested positive from the start of the pandemic to Dec. 11. Ten days later, that total had grown to 227 inmates, including 62 active cases on Dec. 21. At that point, only one person had been hospitalized, Grammes said.
In Northampton County prison, there were 108 inmate cases on Dec. 22, a nearly 60% increase from 11 days earlier. No inmates had been hospitalized, said Becky Bartlett, the county’s deputy director of administration.
And in Monroe County, the corrections officers union and the prison’s medical staff on Dec. 23 informed the county commissioners in a letter that they had taken a no confidence vote in Warden Garry Haidle over his handling of the prison’s outbreak. According to the letter, at least 44 inmates and 37 on staff had contracted the virus, with some spreading it to family members.
Dennis Hower, president of Teamsters Local 773, which represents the staff, said the prison wasn’t screening employees before shifts or properly isolating those with positive cases.
’Only so much room’
Inmates in Lehigh County paint a similar picture. John Waldron, an Allentown criminal defense attorney, said he had eight clients in Lehigh County Jail in late December, some of whom contracted COVID-19 there. One, he said, tested positive a day before a hearing in his case, forcing the hearing to be continued.
“Clients of mine that don’t have the virus are complaining to me that they are being housed in locations with individuals that have the virus because of the constraints and the amount of people at the jail,” Waldron said. “There’s only so much room.”
Lehigh County Jail referred all questions to Grammes. She contradicted what inmates told Waldron, as well as what inmates and guards told The Morning Call, saying those who test positive for the virus are not housed in the same pod or in the same cell as those who test negative. Inmates with the virus, she said, are separated from those whoare healthy until they are COVID-19 free, unless there are “special considerations” that need to be evaluated.
A second inmate who says he contracted the virus at Lehigh
County Jail said the situation has made both inmates and guards miserable. The inmate, who also asked that his name not be used, has been waiting since September to be tried on a third-degree, nonviolent felony and two misdemeanor charges. Like the other inmate, he wasn’t tested until Dec. 7, when he and others in his block found out they hadCOVID19. He said not enough was done to protect the inmates.
“Many are pretrial detainees that are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty — innocent men and women being held in a facility that is responsible for our safety, a facility overrun with the coronavirus,” he said.
To control the spread, the facility has been locked down. Inmates are only allowed out of their cells once per day for 30 minutes. They have time to shower and make a call but not much else. The inmate who was held on a parole violation said they are served food in their cells and often not on schedule, especially on weekends. At times, he said, meals have been served 20 hours apart and the food often is cold.
One corrections officer, who was granted anonymity because he was not authorized to speak
with the media, said meals are delayed because the inmates who normally work in the kitchen were sick with COVID-19. It got to the point, he said, that women inmates who don’t normally work in the kitchen, had to fill in, learning on the job as they went along.
Despite a second surge of the coronavirus multiplying cases in the general population for months, rapid tests for newly admitted Lehigh County inmates didn’t start until Dec. 7, which was also when the jail began testing the general population, Grammes confirmed.
Among corrections officers in the jail, 74 — about 40% — have tested positive from the beginning of the pandemic to Dec. 22, with some requiring hospitalization, Grammes said.
The situation there appears much more dire than in neighboring Northampton County prison, where 38 guards, about 18%, had tested positive in late December.
Two Lehigh County officers said those on staff who have managed to stay healthy are exhausted. While officers contract the virus, others are being mandated to work double shifts, 16 hours total, sometimes
for several days in a row.
They said many officers are sleep deprived, which is a safety hazard in a job that requires a person to be alert at all times.
In Lehigh County, an officer whorefuses to work a mandatory overtime shift can face a 30-day suspension, said Max Weikel, the corrections officers union representative with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 543. A second refusal could end in suspension without pay or termination.
Because of the long hours, guards are quitting.
“This used to be a really good job,” one of the Lehigh County guards said. “And people just can’t keep up with the schedule anymore. They just can’t do it.”
Grammes said in December alone, one officer resigned and two others tendered resignations.
Weikel said two more officers put in for retirement right before Christmas.
Problems go back years
Lehigh County Jail has long been understaffed, Weikel said, and would need 209 corrections officers for staffing levels to be adequate. Grammes put the staffing at 182 on Dec. 22.
Retention has also long been an issue, Weikel said, with starting pay at $20 per hour, less than what officers can make at less risky jobs elsewhere in the Lehigh Valley. And guards aren’t getting hazard pay through the pandemic, something unions have pushed for, while a number of other essential workers are.
Weikel said the pandemic has exacerbated problems at the jail that predate the current administration, which has been in place for about four years. Mostly, he said, communication from the administration to staff has been poor, which he called a long-standing problem.
“There’s no slack there for people to catch their breath and get caught up to speed on what the latest direction is,” Weikel said.
Grammes said the administration has communicated procedures to officers through their supervisors as well as in written memos, written directives and a COVID Operational Guide. She said guards are told which inmates test positive, a point the two guards who spoke to The Morning Call hotly disputed.
Those officers said that because of a lack of clear direction, officers are left to turn to the people they’re supposed to be guarding to fill in the blanks.
“Officers are asking inmates how things are supposed to be done,” said one.
If assigned to a housing unit he hasn’t worked in a week, the officer said, he’ll ask inmates in the unit how previous officers ran things. More often than not, he said, he’s told officers did something different each day.
“There are COVID-positive housing units within the jail that we are to assume that everyone on that housing unit is positive,” one of the officers said.
He added that the medical staff informs inmates of their test results, and that guards hear about those results only if inmates choose to share them.
The officer said that in the jail’s drug and alcohol housing unit, COVID-19-positive inmates and negative inmates were so intermixed, they were sometimes in the same cells.
In that unit, inmates are considered cohorts, Grammes said, “similar to a household in the community.” The entire unit was quarantined when cases surfaced, she said. “Inmates who were symptomatic and tested positive were removed from the unit and housed in a positive unit until they recovered,” she said. And follow up testing
was conducted to make sure all inmates were negative.
A Northampton County corrections officer told The Morning Call that because of medical privacy laws, he and his colleagues similarly don’t always know if they came in close contact with an infected inmate. As in Lehigh County, the officer said he and co-workers also are feeling the strain of long hours.
In Northampton County prison, according to Bartlett, universal testing started on July 20 and all inmates and employees are now wearing N-95 masks and having their temperatures checked multiple times a day. Bartlett said new inmates are tested upon arrival and quarantined until results come back. Random testing takes place throughout the prison regularly, she said. In addition, newcleaning procedures have been established including regular disinfection of rooms with UVlight.
Lax cleaning protocols were among the issues the Monroe County union president flagged in his letter to the county commissioners. Teamsters Local 773 also recently paid for a radio advertisement blasting conditions at the jail. Officers have complained about being forced to use personal time if they have to quarantine after testing positive. That, the union says, might encourage some employees to report to work even if they are sick.
Matt Weidman, a business agent for the local, said 1 in 4 guards at the Monroe County jail have tested positive for the virus, and at least 20 employees reported spreading the infection to their families.
Cases started increasing the week before Thanksgiving, Weidman said.
“We went from just two to three officers out to somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 officers out in just a small time frame,” Weidman said.
The problem, said Vince Cardenas, a corrections officer at the facility, is not knowing which co-worker might have the virus.
“I’ve had to relieve people who were going home sick not knowing if they had it and then later finding out they tested positive,” he said.
When he got tested, Cardenas said, it was on his own benefit time.
He and others are calling for temperature screenings and a medical questionnaire for officers to fill out when they report for work each day.
And they want separate leave specifically to deal with a coronavirus diagnosis or quarantine, as well as hazard pay.
It isn’t feasible to give extra leave because that could create staffing shortages, said Monroe County Commissioner John Moyer.
As of Dec. 14, the Monroe jail reported seven cases among its 332 inmates and seven cases among its employees, with the first cases turning up in October, said Warden Garry Haidle.
What can be done?
Early on in the pandemic, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered courts to close. In response, Lehigh County officials changed bail, parole and probation periods, and hundreds of low-risk inmates were released across the state.
In early April, amid these releases, The Morning Call reported there were slightly more than 600 inmates in Lehigh County, about half of capacity. On Dec. 11, Grammes said the jail had 735 inmates.
Waldron said more could be done to keep people out of the jail during the pandemic, such as granting early parole to nonvio
lent offenders, first-time offenders or those with a history of only minor offenses, and allowing bail for probation or parole violators.
Advocacy groups like FAMM and the Pennsylvania Prison Society say immediate, safe reduction of the prison population is imperative to saving lives.
In April, Gov. Tom Wolf directed the Corrections Department to establish a temporary reprieve program to transfer qualified state prison inmates to community corrections facilities or home confinement. The Prison Society estimated about 1,200 inmates would be eligible and argued for moreto be considered, such as those at high risk of contracting a severe case of the virus. Between April and June, however, the department said, just 160 inmates weretransferred.
“Wehave so many people who are serving excessive sentences and they are sick and elderly,”
said Trusty, of the advocacy group FAMM. She called on the Legislature to join the 18 states that have enacted medical parole, which would enable inmates with serious medical conditions to be released into settings better equipped to provide the care they need.
Such a provision would be especially useful in Pennsylvania, where long sentences, including life without parole, are common and can be given to people who tangentially participated in serious crimes, says a Dec. 10 report from the Pennsylvania Prison Society. Of the state’s prison population, 23% are over age 50 and about one-quarter of those older adults are serving life without parole.
There are no special releases taking place at this time. Inmates can only be released if they have completed their sentences, are paroled, or the governor issues an
order, said Susan McNaughton, a spokeswoman for the Corrections Department.
The state has not stopped transfers from county jails but only Camp Hill state prison in Cumberland County has been accepting new male inmates. On Monday, that will switch to Smithfield state prison in Huntingdon County. County inmates must have a negative coronavirus test to be transferred, McNaughton said.
Inmates who test positive, she said, are isolated and the state conducts contact tracing.
There are only two state prisons for female inmates and coronavirus protocols are in place at both.
State corrections officers want to see transfers between prisons temporarily halted, and they recently advocated for a two-week lockdown of inmates. Unlike in county jails, state inmates are allowed out of their cells for activities from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., said John Eckenrode, western regional vice president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association.
Eckenrode acknowledged a lockdown isn’t popular, but said it reduced case counts whenimplemented for two weeks at the start of the pandemic.
“The inmates don’t like it, and there may be advocacy groups out there that may be against it, but in my opinion, I don’t know how else you stop them from spreading it,” he said. “You have to keep them away from each other.”