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New Pa. program could release hundreds from state prisons during pandemic

Prison union leaders have long expressed concern about the commonwealth's rising parolee population and shrinking inmate one. (Gerald Herbert/AP Photo)

Prison union leaders have long expressed concern about the commonwealth's rising parolee population and shrinking inmate one. (Gerald Herbert/AP Photo)

In an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus inside state prisons, Pennsylvania will temporarily release up to 1,800 people under an order released Friday by Gov. Tom Wolf.

The program applies to nonviolent prisoners who would be eligible for release within the next nine months, or who are considered vulnerable for infection and are within a year of their release date. That includes those who are 65 or older, have an autoimmune disorder, or have a chronic medical condition, such as heart disease or diabetes.

As of Friday, 11 people incarcerated at SCI Phoenix in Montgomery County had tested positive for the coronavirus.

“We can reduce our nonviolent prison population and leave fewer inmates at risk for contracting COVID-19 while maintaining public safety with this program,” said Gov. Wolf in a statement.

Release could start as early as Tuesday. Under the program, they will be supervised by parole agents while under house arrest, and return to prison once the order expires to complete “any remaining portions of their sentence.”

“There are still a lot of people who are vulnerable to COVID-19 who won’t be eligible under these criteria so I would love to see if there are ways that we can also push to protect them a little bit further. But I’m really excited. I see this as a great first step,” said Celeste Trusty, the Pennsylvania state policy director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

The order excludes several groups from being eligible for temporary release, including prisoners serving sentences for violent crimes such as murder, sexual assault and drug trafficking.

In a statement, the Defender Association of Philadelphia “applauds” Gov. Wolf’s order, but says it’s too restrictive.

“Releasing a large number of non-vulnerable people who pose little risk to the community is the only way to protect the overwhelming majority of people who will remain incarcerated, as well as those working inside our state prisons,” said Chief Defender Keir Bradford-Grey.

State Rep. Chris Rabb, a Democrat who represents parts of northwest Philadelphia, was a bit more blunt.

“Thank you for putting a toe in the water, but this is not nearly enough,” said Rabb, a member of the House Judiciary Committee.

State lawmakers, along with the Department of Corrections and other stakeholders, were discussing the possibility of passing a bill making certain incarcerated people eligible for early release during the pandemic.

The House proposal, which would have released no more than 450 prisoners, was never introduced and now appears to be dead. New Pa. program could release hundreds from state prisons during pandemic

“I don’t have the expectation it will move,” said state Sen. Anthony Williams, a proponent.

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