Even though Gov. Tom Wolf has announced easing restrictions imposed due to the novel coronavirus in various regions, in-person visits with state prison inmates won’t resume until all of Pennsylvania gets a green light for reduced risk.
During the pandemic, visits with inmates have taken place via video hook-up.
“Some sort of video visitation is here to stay,” said Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel in a teleconference Friday morning with reporters.
The department plans to share new procedures for screening visitors when they are formulated.
Wetzel said, “We’re not going to reopen visitation until the whole state is green, but we need to start getting back to normal.
“We’ve learned a lot over the past couple of months,” including conducting COVID-19 testing approximately two weeks before each inmate is transferred within the state system or released, a precaution in case a test produces an incorrect negative result.
County jails are also required to test inmates for coronavirus before they are transferred to state prisons, and the state, Wetzel said, quarantines the new arrivals for 14 days or longer “so symptoms are discovered before they’re mixing with the other population.”
Ninety-five percent of state prison inmates are not serving life sentences, so they will, at some point, return to their home communities.
Counties operate jails separately from the state prison system, although the state Department of Corrections provides oversight.
DOC is also encouraging county jails to test inmates before they transfer to other county jails.
“The governor’s strategy is clearly flattening the curve,” Wetzel said. “I’m on social media as much as anybody, and folks are tired of being locked down. I think that translates inside our prisons.”
The State Correctional Institution at Greene in Franklin Township had one positive COVID-19 test among 27 employees tested. Three inmates were tested, resulting in one positive for the disease.
SCI-Fayette, LaBelle, had three positives among 36 employees, and one inmate positive among 23 tested. Wetzel said the inmate is believed to have contracted the illness at a medical appointment.
Each facility employs a staff of approximately 690 full-timers.
Wetzel predicted, “In the fall, COVID is going to return and our numbers are going to go up, coupled with (seasonal) influenza.”
The inmate population at SCI-Greene is 1,732 after four inmates were released on reprieve. SCI-Fayette had an identical number reprieved, according to Department of Corrections statistics, bringing its population to 1,887.