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FOX43 Reveals: Prisons under pandemic lockdown

Behind bars, access to showers and cleaning supplies is often limited as prison leaders initiate facility-wide lockdowns due to COVID-19 outbreaks.

CAMP HILL, Pa. — First, came the phone calls from worried family members of people in state custody.

Then, the hand-written letters from inmates at the Camp Hill State Correctional Institution.

Those letters and calls detailed poor living conditions and unfair treatment behind bars during a deadly pandemic. FOX43 Reveals that these issues are being reported in many Pennsylvania state prisons.

“Once the virus gets in to a congregate care setting, like a prison or a nursing home, where social distancing can’t really effectively happen, it spreads like wildfire,” said Claire Shubik-Richards, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society.

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) introduced measures in March to prevent and mitigate outbreaks of COVID-19 in the Department's 23 state prisons, including measures recommended by the State Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The PA Prison Society surveyed 350 inmates in prisons across the state about life behind bars during the COVID-19 pandemic. They found many inmates statewide are missing a critical tool in fighting the virus.

“The majority of people who wrote us said that they are not given cleaning products so that they are able to clean their cells, even once a week,” Shubik-Richards said. “Equally troubling, one in six people said they are not able to access medical care.”

FOX43 received similar concerns from current and former inmates at SCI Camp Hill. They said they were not getting fed properly, were not able to shower and that medical appointments were abruptly canceled. 

One former inmate, who was released this week and spoke on the condition of anonymity, claimed prison officials neglected his hernia and said the medical department canceled his ultrasound appointment.

After FOX43 Reveals reached out to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, SCI Camp Hill released a COVID-19 update. The prison has imposed two lockdowns this month due to COVID-19 outbreaks, with the most recent lockdown taking effect on September 15.

FOX43 reveals that the prison’s 2,216 inmates were confined to their cells for six days. They could not make phone calls, take daily showers or clean their cells. On Wednesday, the prison reported 24 employees and 22 inmates had tested positive for the virus.

“Confined to their cells for 23 hours a day, with approximately one hour out. During that one hour, people had a choice. Are they going to call their loved ones? Or are they going to wait in line for a shower? That was true for several months of the pandemic and that is true now in any facility having an outbreak. Right now, that’s Camp Hill and SCI Mercer,” added Shubik-Richards.

The Department of Corrections (DOC) told FOX43 Reveals that they are aware of these concerns and are working with Camp Hill prison leaders.

“There was a delay in getting inmates out to shower due to the deep cleaning that was happening throughout the prison. Things are now settling into the new COVID-19 normal,” said Susan McNaughton, communications director for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. “We are asking everyone to be patient as we work through COVID-19. The steps we are taking are what we have found to be successful in mitigating the virus.”

Those steps include providing food to inmates in their housing units instead of using dining halls, releasing cohorts of inmates—typically two at a time—for out-of-cell activities, such as showers, phones and email kiosks, and prohibiting people from entering the prison without a health screening.

The PA Prison Society’s report found many of the DOC’s measures are working and 78% of surveyed inmates said correctional officers are regularly disinfecting communal areas. However, the report also details a systemic problem with poor hygiene care in our state prisons.

“In some areas, [DOC] is doing what they said they would do and they’re doing it really well, but in this one area of getting cleaning supplies to individuals to be able to maintain sanitization in their housing areas, the department is really falling short,” explained Shubik-Richards.

SCI Camp Hill expects to lift the facility-wide lockdown on September 29, but that could change based upon COVID-19 cases among staff and inmates.

The Department of Corrections answered a number of questions from FOX43 Reveals regarding COVID-19 restrictions and mitigation efforts. You can find their responses below:

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted operations at SCI Camp Hill? COVID-19 has impacted operations at all of our facilities. Every state prison has worked to implement social distancing and has had to change some of the ways it delivers programming, education/vocational classes, etc. Please go to this page of our website to learn more. I specifically recommend you look at our dashboard and also our demobilization plan chart which really breaks down how we are working through COVID-19 using a plan of levels.

What COVID-19 restrictions are in place at the prison?  The steps being taken at SCI Camp Hill are no different than measures taken at other state prisons regarding mitigating COVID. Every measure taken is in close consult with DOC leadership and follows recommendations from the PA Dept. of Health and CDC. Inmates with COVID-19 are isolated and cared for depending on their specific needs. The housing unit where an inmate has tested positive for COVID-19 is cleaned and placed under an enhanced quarantine - inmates are quarantined to their cells and are permitted out under strict controlled movement. Part of the enhanced quarantine – which lasts 14 days -- includes increased temperature and symptom checks by medical staff. Sometimes more than one unit is involved, which could result in a prison-wide lockdown. Employees who report positive COVID-19 test results, isolate at home and can’t return to work without a doctor’s note.

Does this include access to the commissary and cafeterias? Our new normal follows the demobilization plan mentioned previously. Inmates are kept in small groups and those groups never change – these are referred to as cohorts. Using cohorts helps to keep the number of inmates impacted small should COVID-19 appear within a cohort. Commissary, which is only delivered weekly, was issued one day after the lockdown was initiated and continues on its normal schedule of once per week. Commissary is delivered to housing units now, rather than inmates walking to the commissary to pick up their items. We no longer use inmate dining halls, because doing so allowed too many inmates to gather. Instead we now provide food to inmates on their housing units.

When are inmates given hygiene products, like soap, or access to showers? Yes, inmates are given antibacterial soap and cleaning supplies to clean their cells. Access to showers is done also by cohort, although at Camp Hill there was a complete lockdown for several days before showers were offered, but they have been offered since September 21, 2020. Cohort size can be as small as two inmates at a time, so providing every cohort shower time can take a while. Employees on each housing unit work to ensure fairness when releasing cohorts for out-of-cell things like showers and access to phones and email kiosks. Once every inmate has been offered the opportunity to shower, etc., the rotation begins again.

I understand some contractors may be allowed in and out of the building for repairs. If so, what work is being done and what COVID-19 mitigation efforts are in place for any outside contractors? We always have work being done at our prisons, and sometimes the work can’t be done by our own maintenance staff. During COVID-19, only mission critical repair work is being done. Other repair work that is not critical to the safety and security of our prisons is being put on hold. No one enters the prison without passing the enhanced screening mentioned previously.

FOX43 reveals issues that affect you and your family to keep you informed. Do you have a tip that needs to be investigated? Or documents we should dig into? Send us a confidential news tip to FOX43reveals@FOX43.com.

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