Wolf Administration Participates in National Project to Review Safe Inmate Population Reduction During COVID-19

The Wolf Administration recently participated in a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine project, which resulted in the report: Decarcerating Correctional Facilities During COVID-19. Released today, the report, which was funded by Arnold Ventures and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, offers guidance on efforts to decarcerate, or reduce the incarcerated population, as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among the experts participating in its various committees was Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, who joined others to tackle the issue of mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in correctional facilities. While other state departments of Corrections provided input, Wetzel was the only corrections official to participate in a committee.

“The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is fortunate to have an exceptional team of corrections and parole experts led by Secretary John Wetzel,” Governor Tom Wolf said. “Throughout this ongoing battle against COVID-19, Wetzel and his team have led the nation in its response to and fight against this virus. I am pleased that John was able to share his knowledge and efforts related to COVID-19 and to help guide the nation to safely reduce inmate populations.”

“I was honored to represent the Wolf Administration by participating in this important project,” Wetzel said. “Thanks to Gov. Wolf’s leadership, we have been successful in our efforts to mitigate COVID-19 while keeping the public safe and informed. Many of the recommendations of this report are things our agency has been doing. I commend our employees for their continued work to keep our staff and inmates safe.”

The report includes a chart indicating Pennsylvania is one of only a few states where the COVID-19 rate is lower in correctional facilities than in communities.

The National Academies created several committees to examine reducing inmate populations during COVID-19. Based upon research reviewed, their report has concluded that “decarceration is an appropriate and necessary mitigation strategy to include in the COVID-19 response in correctional facilities and would reduce risks of exposure to and transmission of the disease within correctional facilities, thus improving the safety of incarcerated and detained people and correctional staff.”

The report also highlights the need to focus on reentry efforts for justice-involved people who are released from prison. Areas of importance identified include access to community health care and mental health services, employment assistance, housing support, family reunification efforts and community racial inequity issues and concerns. Existing partnerships and new collaborations are key to decarceration, which the report says is a process and not a one-time action. Some actions will be immediately feasible, while others will take longer to implement.

Recommendations, many of which the PA DOC has already implemented, include:

  • Federal, state, and local officials should exercise their discretion across a variety of domains to divert individuals from incarceration.
  • Correctional officials, in conjunction with public health authorities, should take steps to assess the optimal population level of their facilities to adhere to public health guidelines during the pandemic.
  • Correctional officials should identify candidates for release from prison and jail in a fair and equitable manner and engage other officials outside the correctional system as necessary to expedite decarceration to the optimal level.
  • Federal and state policy makers should revise compassionate release policies to account for petitioners’ medical condition, age, functional or cognitive impairment, or family circumstances.
  • When releasing individuals from prisons and jails, correctional officials, in collaboration with other public officials and community-based programs, should develop individualized reentry plans incorporating a bundle of services encompassing health care, housing, and income supports to address individual and family needs as an important complement to decarceration efforts.
  • Correctional officials, in coordination with local public health authorities should implement measures to avoid creating additional COVID-19-related health risks for families and communities.
  • Parole and probation departments should examine their policies and procedures and take quick action where needed to reduce the impact of community supervision on the spread of COVID-19.
  • States should remove barriers to eligibility for Medicaid to ensure that incarcerated and previously incarcerated individuals have access to COVID-19 tests and related services and transitional health care need.
  • All correctional facilities (including jails, state and federal prisons, detention centers of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and juvenile facilities) should report daily standardized, aggregated data on COVID-19 incidence, testing rates, hospitalizations, mortality, and all-cause-mortality among incarcerated people and staff by age, gender, and race/ethnicity to public health officials as directed and via a public-facing website or dashboard.
  • State and federal research infrastructures should invest in the monitoring and evaluation of the changes in operations and targeted COVID-19 release mechanisms in correctional facilities to document the impact of such efforts on correctional health, public safety, public health, and racial equity.

Learn more about the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and its COVID-19 mitigation efforts at www.cor.pa.gov.