Pa. prisons halt visitation for unvaccinated prisoners, will house prisoners by vaccination status

This June 1, 2018, file photo shows a housing unit in the west section of the State Correctional Institution at Phoenix in Collegeville, Pa. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma, File)

This June 1, 2018, file photo shows a housing unit in the west section of the State Correctional Institution at Phoenix in Collegeville, Pa. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma, File)

The Pennsylvania prison system announced Thursday it is stopping in-person visits for the thousands of prisoners who are not vaccinated against COVID-19. Individuals will also be assigned to housing units based on their vaccination status starting next week.

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said the policies are part of the system’s effort to limit the contact the unvaccinated have with potential carriers of the coronavirus.

The department website reports there are 63 active COVID-19 cases among prisoners in state correctional institutions. Nearly half of the sick prisoners are housed at SCI-Phoenix, where there are 31 current cases.

That uptick coupled with concerns about the delta variant in Pennsylvania informed the system’s decision to scale back visitation and regroup prisoners.

“As we learn more about the highly contagious nature of the virus and its variants, it is critically important for the DOC to take proactive measures to keep our population safe,” said Wetzel.

“Those who are vaccinated are protected by the vaccine, and we are working to protect those who choose not to be vaccinated by limiting contact with potential carriers of the virus.”

Nearly 8,000 incarcerated individuals in state prisons are not vaccinated, or about one in five. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is routinely offered to any individual who wants one.

Vaccinated prisoners will continue to be allowed visits that comply with the system’s COVID-era visitation policy. Time slots are selected three days in advance and capacities are limited to prevent crowding in the visitation rooms.

Family and friends of unvaccinated prisoners with scheduled visits will receive a cancelation notice via email, according to the department.

The changes won’t affect access to classes and programs. Additional terminals will be installed in the unvaccinated units for video visitation. Medical staff will make daily rounds on unvaccinated units at least once per day to conduct COVID-19 screenings.

“We cannot afford to become complacent,” said Wetzel. “We are in a much better position to battle this virus today than we were in the first half of 2020, and we will continue to adapt and evolve and take necessary action to keep COVID out of our institutions.”

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