PHILADELPHIA - Three prison reform groups sent letters today to every county jail, federal prison and immigration detention center in Pennsylvania as well as the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections urging evidence-based responses to the coronavirus pandemic, with an expectation that the jails and prisons will be transparent in how they are responding. Calling people who are incarcerated “highly vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious illnesses,” the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, and FAMM outlined ten areas of concern in the letter, including proper education for prisoners and staff, the availability of hygiene products, and precautions for prisoners who are at increased vulnerability.

The letter also notes that the organizations intend to follow up with Right To Know requests to facilitate public knowledge of the institutions’ plans.

“This is a critical time for managing and controlling the spread of this virus,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “By definition, people who are incarcerated are particularly susceptible to communicable diseases because they are housed in close proximity to others.

“We know there is a lot of pressure right now on administrators of prisons and jails. We want to be sure that they are thinking clearly about best practices to care for the people in their custody that are based in science and that they are being transparent about those practices. People who are incarcerated and their loved ones deserve as much.”

In the letter, the organizations ask the institutions’ administrators to collaborate with the state Department of Health or their county’s equivalent. The prisons, jails, and detention centers should have clear plans for housing people who have been exposed to the virus that do not require unnecessary lockdowns, for data collection like that being tracked in the outside community, and staffing plans both for employed staff and for institutional functions that are managed by people who are incarcerated, the letter states.

The organizations identified pregnant women and people with chronic illnesses, compromised immune systems, or disabilities, and people whose housing placements restrict their access to medical care and limit the staff’s ability to observe them as “vulnerable populations.”

“We are highly concerned about those inside prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers, due to the large population of medically vulnerable individuals who are incarcerated,” stated Su Ming Yeh, Interim Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project.  “Even during a pandemic such as this, individuals who are incarcerated or detained must be treated humanely, be provided adequate preventive and medical care, and have access to the outside world through their attorneys, family, and friends.”

A copy of the letter is available at this link.