Drexel University Kline School of Law’s Andy and Gwen Stern Community Lawyering Clinic (Stern CLC) and Amistad Law Project recently published “Pandemic in PA’s Prisons.” This report calls for Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf to release vulnerable and elderly incarcerated individuals in an attempt to stop COVID-19 from running rampant across the state. As of July 1, 2020, the five largest clusters of COVID-19 in the United States are in correctional institutions.
The report recommends that Governor Wolf should expand the reprieve program, which was established in April, to include “all of those who are vulnerable to the virus because of their age or medical condition and pose a low risk to public safety.” The population of elderly and at-risk individuals is particularly high in Pennsylvania’s prisons because of the state’s widespread use of life without parole (LWOP) sentences. Indeed, seniors make up nearly a quarter of Pennsylvania’s prison population.
“Because of the high number of elderly incarcerated in PA, our prisons are essentially nursing homes behind bars. If a substantial outbreak of COVID-19 happens there, the results could be catastrophic,” said Rachel López, associate professor of law and director of the Stern CLC.
The impetus to produce this report grew out of the work that the Stern CLC students were doing with incarcerated individuals in a state prison in the spring term. As part of their coursework, the Stern CLC students created a project that at the time was focused on challenging LWOP sentences as unconstitutional for individuals who developed certain types of cognitive disabilities during their incarceration. When the pandemic hit, the Stern CLC recognized the unique vulnerability of this population to the virus and shifted its focus.
“The shift from our initial project to the COVID-19 prison report was a no-brainer,” said Reece McGovern, one of three Kline students to help produce the report. “On a personal level, my team and I were afraid for our partners on the inside who were particularly at risk of contracting the virus…. As the pandemic became a clear threat in the United States, my peers and I quickly recognized the risk of massive, uncontrolled outbreaks inside Pennsylvania's prisons.”
The risk of a “massive, uncontrolled outbreak” is a significant one for Pennsylvania’s prisons, which are ill-equipped to protect incarcerated individuals from COVID-19. Requirements for social distancing measures, for example, are nearly impossible to follow in most facilities. Additionally, by instituting the longest state-wide lockdown in Pennsylvania, the Department of Corrections is inadvertently increasing interactions between incarcerated individuals and staff (who are the only ones who could bring the virus in from the outside). In addition, personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning supplies are in short supply. Many individuals do not have access to sufficient amounts of soap, and hand sanitizer is banned because of the alcohol content.
These and other challenges have led many prisons to be “a constant source of outbreaks of COVID-19 across this country,” noted López. “In Pennsylvania, we have been lucky so far, but that does not guarantee a safe future when the second wave of the virus hits. We urge Governor Wolf to learn from the mistakes and successes of other states to prevent Pennsylvania’s prisons from becoming yet another cautionary tale of this pandemic. He must expand his reprieve program to free the vulnerable before it is too late.”