On Friday Governor Tom Wolf announced the creation of a Temporary Program to Reprieve Sentences of Incarceration to help aid the corrections department in the transfer of qualifying individuals to community corrections facilities or home confinement amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The programs applies to state prison inmates only who have been identified by corrections officials as being non-violent and or with health ailments.
Inmates that will qualify are aged 65 or older; anyone with an autoimmune disorder; pregnant inmates; anyone with a serious, chronic medical condition such as heart disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, bone marrow or organ transplantation, severe obesity, kidney disease, liver disease,[and] cancer; or another medical condition that places them at higher risk for complications of coronavirus as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state officials said Friday.
The releases could begin as early as Tuesday, April 14 state officials said.
“We can reduce our non-violent prison population and leave fewer inmates at risk for contracting COVID-19 while maintaining public safety with this program,” Gov. Wolf said. “I am pleased to direct the Department of Corrections to begin the process to release vulnerable and non-violent inmates at or nearing their release dates in an organized way that maintain supervision post-release and ensures home and health care plans are in place for all reentrants.”
Speaker of the House of Representatives Mike Turzai (R- Allegheny) called the announcement an “inappropriate overreach” by Wolf.
“This decision to let out prisoners – especially while Pennsylvania citizens are adhering to a stay-at-home order – is irresponsible. We need to focus on staving off the virus with appropriate and balanced mitigation efforts and provision of personal protection equipment to our frontline health care professionals. We also need to make sure the economy does not collapse,” said Turzai.
Corrections Sec. John Wetzel said the program is designed to manage risk for employees and prisoners.
“We must reduce our inmate population to be able to manage this virus. Without this temporary program, we are risking the health, and potentially lives, of employees and inmates. We can safely release individuals to the community to reduce their vulnerability and allow the department to successfully manage COVID-19,” he said.
“Unlawfully releasing these prisoners sends the wrong message to law-abiding Pennsylvanians who are counting on government to restore normalcy in a safe and responsible manner,” Turzai said.
While on temporary release, state officials said, individuals will be monitored similarly to parolees and will be supervised by parole agents.
Upon expiration of the emergency management order, individuals would be returned to prison to complete any remaining portion of their sentences.
As of Saturday there are 11 COVID-19 cases at the State Correctional Institute in Montgomery County, but concern for cases spreading to other facilities is another stated reason for the expedited release of eligible inmates, state officials said.