HARRISBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania inmates and their families have been writing to FOX43 Reveals with concerns about visitation and safety. For the first time in more than a year, state prison inmates can see their families in-person if the inmate is vaccinated.
Inmate advocates said appointments are limited and phone calls are no longer free—making it difficult for families to connect with their incarcerated loved ones.
“In Pennsylvania, it’s 89 cents for a 15-minute phone call,” said Kirstin Cornnell, Social Services Director at the Pennsylvania Prison Society. “I was talking to one mom and she said that her son makes about $40 a month and their phone bill to communicate on a daily basis is about $80 a month. So that cost gets transferred to the family.”
FOX43 Reveals that 141 state prison inmates have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. Families are now anxiously watching vaccination rates. According to data from the State Department of Corrections (DOC), more than 88 percent of inmates are fully vaccinated and only 23 percent of prison staff are vaccinated.
However, hundreds of staff vaccinations could be going uncounted. At this time, prison staff are not required to share their vaccination status with the DOC.
A department spokesperson told FOX43 Reveals staff immunizations that occurred at a DOC facility are reported on the dashboard, but vaccination information for staff who received a vaccination elsewhere in the community—like their doctor’s office, local pharmacy, or clinic—is only included if the staff member chose to report it to their facility.
Governor Tom Wolf’s new ‘Vaccine or Test’ requirement may begin to fill in the gaps in missing vaccination data for prison staff. Commonwealth employees in health care and high-risk congregate facilities are required to get vaccinated by September 7 or submit to weekly COVID-19 testing.
The Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, a union representing thousands of prison guards, called the mandate “a slap in the face–and frankly, way too late because thousands of members already have been infected.”
The union said many prison guards are relying on natural immunity to protect against COVID-19. There have been 4,842 cases of COVID-19 among corrections staff and 11,350 cases among inmates.
Advocates are hoping in-person visits can continue, and expand, because there are families that drive 10 hours roundtrip just to spend one hour with their locked up loved ones.
“We have to balance safety protocol and mitigation measures to keep people in congregate care settings safe, first and foremost, and healthy, but really recognizing that there are people who have been feeling intense isolation and there are long-term repercussions to that,” Cornnell said.
There are currently 23 active cases of COVID-19 among Pennsylvania inmates and 38 active cases among state prison staff.
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