Pa. state prison system ready to start ‘working back to normal’

Officers at the Cumberland County Prison walk the halls in Carlisle, Pa. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Officers at the Cumberland County Prison walk the halls in Carlisle, Pa. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Roughly two months after quarantining the state’s prison system, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections is preparing to launch a five-stage reopening plan, officials announced Friday.

The department’s “demobilization” process is slated to start May 26 and coincides with the state’s color-coded reopening plan. Moving from one stage to the next will depend on whether there are any new positive cases of COVID-19 among people working and living in the prisons. The reopening status — red, yellow or green — of the prison’s home county will also be a factor.

Since the start of the pandemic, 231 incarcerated people have tested positive for COVID-19 — less than one percent of the state’s prison population. Another 166 staffers have been infected to date.

“What we did has clearly put us in a position where we feel like we can start working back to normal,” said Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel during a virtual news conference.

On May 26, all the prisons in the state will loosen restrictions somewhat, even those that are in counties still in the red zone of coronavirus restrictions. Nearly a dozen of the state’s prisons will move from Level 5 — the most restrictive stage — to Level 4. They are: Camp Hill, Chester, Coal Township, Dallas, Frackville, Huntingdon, Mahony, Phoenix, Retreat, Smithfield and Waymart.

The system’s remaining facilities will move to Level 3. They are: Albion, Benner Township, Cambridge Springs, Fayette, Forest, Green, Houtzdale, Laurel Highlands, Mercer, Muncy, Pine Grove, Quehanna, Rockview and Somerset.

“It’s gonna be a long path back to normal, but we need to start getting back to normal,” said Wetzel.

As counties move from red, to yellow, to green, state prisons within those counties will gradually increase the number of prisoners allowed out of their cells at a time.

Level 4 of the plan permits cohorts of up to 16 prisoners to be released.

Level 1 of the plan has no restrictions.

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Meals, which are currently served on cell blocks, will slowly transition back to being served in dining halls with social distancing protocols, while certain work details will resume immediately.

Facilities moved to Level 3 of the plan can gradually resume out-of-cell religious activities, but gyms won’t start coming back online until Level 2.

The department’s freeze on in-person visitations will not be lifted until the entire state has gone green, though “some form of video visitation is here to stay,” said Wetzel.

Enhanced medical screening for staffers will continue, as well as the requirement for everyone inside the facility to wear face masks.

More than two-thirds of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties are now in the yellow phase. Gov. Tom Wolf has yet to announce when the state will begin moving counties into the green phase of his administration’s reopening plan. Details of what activities would be permitted are still being discussed.

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