Social distancing is difficult enough in densely packed urban areas like New York City, which has become the epicenter of the pandemic in the country in no small part because of its high population density. But in the most restrictive and crowded environments society offers—state prisons—practicing social distancing or quarantine is near impossible.
COVID-19 is spreading through correctional facilities across the nation like wildfire. One prison in Ohio recently reported at least 1,828 confirmed cases among inmates, an outbreak that amounts to 73% of the prison’s population. Michigan’s Department of Corrections has to date tested more than 948 prisoners, and 619 of them have turned up positive for COVID-19.
It is in another heartland state hard-hit by the virus, Pennsylvania, that the governor has taken an important proactive step to stem the threat of COVID-19’s spread within the state prison system. On April 10, Gov. Tom Wolf, pursuant to his specific reprieve powers vested entirely within his office by the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, issued an Executive Order establishing the temporary “Reprieve of Sentence of Incarceration Program” to prudently and safely grant reprieves to some inmates who the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections deems meet certain carefully considered conditions. The Order allows for the early release of only those inmates who meet very strict criteria to ensure they are non-violent and pose minimal threat to the general public.
The strict criteria of the Order considers for release those inmates who are medically vulnerable to coronavirus as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and would have been eligible for release within the next year, and inmates within nine months of their minimum eligibility release date. After identifying inmates that fit this criteria, the Order requires the Department of Corrections to exclude those currently incarcerated for—or having been convicted of in the last 10 years—a series of offenses identified in the order, including crimes violent or sexual in nature.
As further safeguards, the Order prohibits the release of any person who poses an identifiable risk to public safety, and instructs the Department of Corrections to confer with the Court, the Office of Attorney General, and District Attorney’s Office in the county from which the inmate was sentenced before recommending them to the program for release. Importantly, this ensures that victims’ rights are protected and properly balanced. Inmates who are released will transfer to community corrections centers, community corrections facilities, or home confinement and will have to abide by the terms and conditions of supervision as imposed by the Department of Corrections.
In contrast to other mass releases, this thoughtfully fashioned Order balances the need to respond to the viral threat behind prison walls with the need to protect the public. As of this writing, 12 days after the date of the Order, 112 inmates have been approved for reprieve, evidence that implementation has been deliberate and balanced. Further, by releasing vulnerable inmates and reducing the inmate population before they are infected, the health and safety of the general public is served because fewer infected prisoners means less of a chance that they will have to be treated in increasingly overwhelmed public healthcare systems.
Balancing public safety and public health in the COVID-19 crisis is not easy, especially in a state with as many cases of the virus as Pennsylvania. Gov. Wolf has found a way to prioritize public safety while allowing for the release of a specific population—which makes more sense than general release. Pennsylvania’s prison system, including both the incarcerated population and the staff, as well as the people of Pennsylvania, should benefit from this decisive and timely action taken by Gov. Wolf.