A few days before the national halt of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, SCI Phoenix stopped administering doses to the incarcerated population and facility staff. On April 9, an individual at the Montgomery County prison
Currently, his death is still being investigated and SCI Phoenix is awaiting the Governor’s guidelines to move forward with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
The COVID-19 virus hit prisons and jails almost three times as hard as the general public. Just in Pennsylvania, incarcerated people are twice as likely to die from COVID than the rest of the state’s population. Notorious overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and limited medical care left it almost impossible to mitigate the spread of the virus.
It was often overlooked that these unsanitary conditions existed prior to the pandemic and already proved problematic and dangerous. It was the rapid spread of COVID that forced a deeper reckoning with the lack of safety and sanitation concerns in the prison system.
According to a research team from the University of Pennsylvania, this lack of preparation could have been seen through the Departments unorganized data keeping methods.
“We believe that the mishandling of the testing data within the DOC was indicative of a general unpreparedness for the pandemic that needlessly cost many incarcerated people their lives,” Jacob Parelman, a doctoral candidate at The University of Pennsylvania, said.
Parelman and assistant professor Matt O’Donnell teamed up with The Amistad Law Project in the early days of the pandemic to track the spread of COVID through Pennsylvania prisons. The DOC provided the research team with a spreadsheet of daily case numbers and test results.
Throughout the project, the team saw eight instances in which data in their spreadsheets did not match up with publicly available data. Mismatched data included large declines in test numbers and cases. A blog post they published questions the honesty of their data.
In June 2020, The Marshall Project and The Associated Press worked to “grade” states’ prison systems on their level of preparedness for the pandemic based on the personal protective equipment that was dispersed, early release orders enacted and testing on a point scale.
Pennsylvania received an “F+”, losing full point categories for failing to provide early COVID testing, the failure to cease prison admissions and poor data organization.
“Mandating PPE is proactive. Surveillance testing is proactive in order to quarantine and mitigate as necessary. Providing the vaccine to all staff and inmates is proactive,” Maria Bivens, a spokesperson for the DOC said in an email.
But according to the Department, masks weren’t distributed or mandated until March 21, 2020; The first reprieve orders weren’t signed until April 14, 2020; The COVID tracker online dashboard wasn’t available until May 26, 2020.
“We received calls from loved ones talking about the mitigation measures and basically they say it was good to put online, so they didn’t follow through with what they were supposed to do with what they planned and put out on their website,” Naya Blue, a representative from the Pennsylvania Prison Society said.
John Eckenrode, the president of the Pennsylvania State Correction Officers Association, graded the level of preparedness a “D”. He said after not being provided with masks from the Department, union members chipped in to purchase masks. Reports from formerly incarcerated people in the state’s county jails report the masks being of low quality and difficult to wear effectively.
According to a COVID safety survey conducted by the Pennsylvania Prison Society, one in six incarcerated people reported not being able to secure a medical appointment. Non-emergency visits stopped statewide on March 16, 2020. Due to issues reported with healthcare prior to the pandemic, The Prison Society interpreted this as a general decline in access to basic healthcare.
“CFCF is like a horror show, their sick call box is full, that’s because they’re understaffed,” Blue said. “A lot of people are on a decline of proper medical treatment or any treatment at all.”
Reliable access to necessary cleaning products was also a reported difficulty across county jails and in the Prison Society’s survey.
Some of the biggest accusations of COVID being welcomed into prisons and jails is through new admissions, corrections officers coming and going each day and continuing transfers. Testing for those who were transferred didn’t start until May 7, 2020.
“Transferring inmates from one facility to the other was really what helped the virus spread” Eckenrode said.
Gov. Wolf’s reprieve program effectively reduced about 10 percent of the state’s prison population and about 20 percent of the county jail population. But these measures were enacted early in the pandemic and not again enacted, even following the outbreak in the latter part of 2020.
Blue said the answer may lie in solving the staffing shortages, especially in medical care.
“I’m not actually in the facility, but maybe more nurses or staff willing to make sure everything is okay or a protocol to do welfare checks on sick inmates,” Blue said.