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Pa. state prison system turning to video chats to keep people connected during pandemic

In this Nov. 14, 2017 photo, a Telmate tablet that allows inmates to surf the Internet, play games, and video chat with friends and family is displayed at the Bonneville County Jail in Idaho Falls, Idaho. (John Roark/The Idaho Post-Register via AP)

In this Nov. 14, 2017 photo, a Telmate tablet that allows inmates to surf the Internet, play games, and video chat with friends and family is displayed at the Bonneville County Jail in Idaho Falls, Idaho. (John Roark/The Idaho Post-Register via AP)

For the first time ever, Pennsylvania residents will be able video chat with loved ones who are serving state prison sentences.

The program, scheduled to launch by the end of the week, is part of a larger plan designed to better connect people in prison with their family and friends on the outside during the coronavirus pandemic.

The spread of COVID-19 led the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to temporarily suspend face-to-face visits at all 25 state prisons.

“Everyone in the community is kind of scratching their heads. It feels almost surreal.” said Secretary John Wetzel in an interview. “Add on the tension of being incarcerated. There’s just another layer of angst. Part of our plan has to be to address that angst.”

Through the department’s website, people will be able to sign up for a 45-minute video visit. They’ll be able to access the session on their computer, smartphone or tablet.

Under the plan, inmates will also be given five free phone calls, which usually cost roughly six cents per minute. They’ll also be able to send some emails for free.

Khalif Hooker has an uncle serving a life sentence at a state prison more than three hours from his home in North Philadelphia. He said being able to video chat with him will help bridge the communication gap during the pandemic. And save him gas money.

But there’s no substitute for sitting across from your loved one, said Hooker, who talks to his uncle twice a week on the phone, but has also made the trek to State Correctional Institute Smithfield in Huntingdon County.

“I can’t physically touch you or hold you and hug you. The greeting and the goodbye won’t be sincere through the computer,” Hooker said.

During the pandemic, the Department of Corrections is also ramping up its sanitation efforts.

Starting last week, employees and contractors must pass a medical screening before entering a prison.

Crews have also begun cleaning each prison three times every eight hours instead of once a shift. And inmates are getting antibacterial soap and supplies to clean their cells more often.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Pennsylvania had 96 confirmed cases of COVID-19. 

According to Wetzel, none of them stem from someone working or serving time inside a state prison.

For now, there are no plans for the DOC to limit out-of-cell time for those behind bars, or to serve meals outside of prison mess halls.

“This is a marathon,” Wetzel said. “What we’re guessing is that this is going to be months. So is a prison system that’s locked down for months, is that going to be the kind of environment that is good for us to manage? I think no.”

The Department of Corrections does have a pandemic plan, which includes quarantining infected people on the same cell block, sending their meals there and limiting the number of staffers who work in those housing units.

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