COVID-19 and Incarceration
By: Emily Greene, Paralegal
It feels cliché to point out that COVID-19 changed many aspects of our daily lives. Incarcerated people and their families have also faced change, some devastating, but these changes are largely invisible to the general public.
The nature of a prison facility is such that containing a disease like COVID-19 is extremely difficult. This, combined with a general lack of resources, lack of medical personnel, and overcrowding poses a significant safety hazard to those who are incarcerated during this pandemic. The Marshall Project published a COVID-19 Survival Guide with practical tips and advice for incarcerated individuals who want to take extra steps to protect themselves. However, there is unfortunately only so much individuals can do on their own to protect themselves in open-air and crowded environments. At the county, state, and federal level protocols have been put in place by jails and prisons to try and keep inmates and staff safe. “Shelter in place” is one thing in the comfort of your own home, but for some behind bars, it has meant months of isolation.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the Department of Corrections issued a statewide lockdown order that mandated all prisoners be confined to their cells for all but 45 minutes a day. That order expired in May. But, as COVID-19 outbreaks emerge and decline, inmates go through periods of isolating quarantines. In person visitation was completely banned for most of the pandemic. A few counties have recently loosened visitation restrictions (you can check the status of each county here), but state institutes are still relying on video visitation. Reports have indicated that the video visitation software isn’t always functional, and families are at the mercy of the prison schedules.
The Pennsylvania Prison Society has been collecting surveys on inmate wellbeing during the COVID crisis and the results were shocking. Some inmates reported having been locked in their cell for 24 hours a day for multiple weeks at a time, with over 60% of respondents reporting they were given less than an hour a day of time outside of their cell. Though long stretches of isolation can be psychologically challenging, they also impose logistical difficulties. With only an hour total to call home, do legal research, shower, and socialize inmates are forced to make difficult decisions.
The good news is that inmates are slowly being given access to COVID-19 vaccines if they want them. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has offered inmates of state facilities a $25 commissary credit as an incentive to receive both shots, with Westmoreland County following suit. New inmates are going to be given the opportunity to receive a vaccination upon arrival. To say that the criminal justice systems response to the pandemic was mishandled might be understating it. But for families and inmates alike, vaccination might be a step in the right direction. Information about the DOC vaccine rollout can be accessed here.
This environment can make it even more important that inmates have competent legal representation. Especially if they have active cases. Regardless, if you have a loved one who is incarcerated and may need a lawyer, feel free to reach out to Joe Pometto Law. And may we all hope and pray that conditions begin to normalize in the coming months.