To reprieve or not to reprieve? That’s everyone’s question

Is state moving too slow or too fast with coronavirus releases?

  • Joseph Darius Jaafari/PA Post
Happy Thursday, Contexters. Are you tired of reading all the bad news about coronavirus? I know, I feel ya. It’s a sign of news fatigue, and it’s been hitting people HARD. If you’re looking for an escape (but still want to be up to date on the news), the Solutions Journalism Network is compiling solutions-based reporting from across the globe showing how people are responding and working to fix problems related to the coronavirus. — Joseph Darius Jaafari, staff writer

Screenshot from Pa. Senate Judiciary Committee video

Pa. Corrections Secretary John Wetzel testifies via Zoom during a May 20, 2020, state Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Wolf administration’s release of some inmates to control the spread of coronavirus in prisons.

Since February, I’ve been closely monitoring state and county leaders’ responses to COVID-19 inside correctional facilities. Some of their efforts have been good. For example, the decision to immediately restrict inmates to their cells for 23 or more hours a day was arguably a smart public health strategy, limiting the chances that prisoners could pass the virus to each other.

Others steps taken by correctional officials were, arguably, not so helpful.

But as lockdowns continue and inmates get transferred and booked by county facilities, state officials still have to worry about protecting its large inmate population.

Yesterday, Pennsylvania senators questioned Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel about how his department has handled reprieves of non-violent inmates from state correctional facilities. The reprieve process — announced by the governor in mid-April — was a response to public health officials who said that prisons needed to decarcerate as much as possible in order to slow or stop the spread of COVID-19.

Democrats quizzed Wetzel on whether the department had released enough inmates to minimize the spread of coronavirus. Republicans, meanwhile, wanted to know if the department had done enough vetting of inmates who could be considered for release.

In other states, there’ve been anecdotal reports that violent criminals were released as part of coronavirus decarceration efforts. There are even reports of some reprieved inmates committing new crimes. But that hasn’t been the case in Pennsylvania, where more than a third of the inmates considered for release were in jail on non-violent drug charges, such as distribution or manufacturing.

Sen. Lisa Baker (R-Luzerne), who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that one reprieve granted to the wrong person was one too many.

While the DOC started with a list of 1,800 inmates considered good candidates for release, the department has been slow to act. Very slow: In the last month, only 151 inmates from the DOC’s list have been released. That’s just under 10% of the people who were eligible under DOC’s proposal. And it’s not completely clear how many more will be released, as even Wetzel himself said that he’s expecting as little as 40 percent of eligible prisoners will be allowed before the coronavirus threat passes.

The process is going so slowly because it requires input from local district attorneys and different state agencies, including the Office of Victim Advocate.

“After today’s hearing, what’s clear is that advocates for mass incarceration, like the district attorneys and the Victim Advocate, hold outsize power in determining who should be released and when,” Elizabeth Randol, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said in a statement.

Wetzel mentioned that in approximately 10 percent of cases considered for reprieve, local district attorneys wouldn’t sign off.  –Joseph Darius Jaafari

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ALSO: Please join me next Wednesday for an online screening of my latest documentary film, Time Served, which looks at programs designed to help veterans who get caught up in the criminal justice system. Details here.

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Malcolm Kenyatta

Courtesy Rep. Kenyatta's Facebook page

State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D-Philadelphia) speaks at a public event in August 2019. (Image courtesy Rep. Kenyatta’s Facebook page)

  • Two votes: On Tuesday, Democratic lawmakers attempted to squeeze in a civil rights measure into a bill that debated whether shooting ranges were life-sustaining, PA Post reporter Ben Pontz reported. The amendment was introduced by Malcolm Kenyatta (D-Phila.), but was defeated by two votes with seven Republicans crossing party lines in favor of the amendment. RELATED: WHYY reports how lobbyists are now considered essential.

  • Are we there yet?: Republicans have been pushing Gov. Wolf to ease coronavirus restrictions for weeks. Now, some Democrats are showing that they, too, are ready for reopening, The Philadelphia Inquirer reports. State Sen. Steve Santarsiero (D-Bucks) told the newspaper: “The governor knows we have been with him. We have supported what he and [Health Secretary Rachel] Levine have been trying to do, what has resulted in saving lives. I thank him for that. But I think we’re at a point now where there are reasonable steps that can be taken which are consistent with those goals.” PennLive notes that House GOP lawmakers were unsuccessful late Wednesday in overriding some of Wolf’s vetoes of bills designed to get some industries back to work.

  • Play ball! Perhaps sensing the growing demand to return to something approaching normal, Wolf on Wednesday said his administration is working on rules that would allow some sports to resume play. No details yet. “I’m working with a number of professional sports leagues, from NASCAR to NFL to NHL to MLB, and others to figure out how we can move to some semblance of normalcy as we get back into the sports seasons. I want to be consistent, so, in the next few days, I’ll have more serious guidance on how we can do this,” Wolf said. Related from The Morning CallMasks, spaced-out slot machines and no poker rooms among Pennsylvania casino reopening protocols

  • Vaccine trials: Two possible vaccines developed in Pennsylvania are seeing promise in creating antibodies against the coronavirus, The Philadelphia Inquirer reports. One of those vaccines is set to begin human trials in December, while the second vaccine – created by the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia – is already undergoing human trials. But the vaccine that’s received the most hype – created by a Massachusetts-based company – is undergoing human trials, as well. But there is skepticism about its efficacy. Related from the Pittsburgh Post-GazetteUPMC to test malaria drug’s effectiveness in treating COVID-19

  • Farmers get creative: With more restaurants buying less food, farmers have to be quick to pivot to new ideas on how to make money, LNP reports. Where there have been shortages, farmers are selling vegetables and meats curbside. Restaurant-grade chicken is making its way directly into the hands of people who are now cooking at home. But there’s a downside, still: this will have to be a new normal for growers for a long while. RELATED: Why are meatpacking industries hot spots for the virus?

  • The problems with nursing homes: Long-term care facilities continue to be the single-most deadliest place for people who have COVID-19 symptoms. The Department of Health on Tuesday released detailed numbers on COVID-19 deaths and infections by nursing homes across the state, and it showed that in Allegheny County there were more deaths and infections than previously thought. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette found that a prominent nonprofit nursing home, St. Barnabas, had released data to reporters that differed from the state’s numbers. RELATED: Spotlight PA published the full list here, and another story from the Post-GazetteArmstrong County coroner claims state COVID-19 data ‘inflated’ in his region.

  • Mother’s Day rumble: It stormed the Internet, a confrontation outside a York County Red Lobster involving an angry patron and exasperated staff. The woman who caused the commotion “now faces charges of defiant trespass, disorderly conduct and harassment,” the York Daily Record reports.

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