Prisons, nursing homes, and other congregate settings are at the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. Once the virus enters a prison, it can easily spread among people confined in close quarters and travel back into the community, fueling the spread of the virus outside prison walls. That means protecting against COVID-19 in prisons is not just a matter of caring about people who live and work in those facilities — it's a matter of community safety.
The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) introduced measures early on in the pandemic to prevent and mitigate outbreaks of COVID-19 in the Department's 23 state prisons, including measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As the state's independent corrections monitor, the Pennsylvania Prison Society set out to find out how well those measures were being implemented. Starting in April, we distributed a survey to people living behind bars to assess this and illuminate the experience of being in a Pennsylvania state prison during the pandemic.
The Prison Society has been monitoring the spread and mitigation of COVID-19 as it relates to Pennsylvania prisons and jails. In order to get a first-hand perspective, the Prison Society conducted its first ever survey of incarcerated people. Some 345 people in Pennsylvania state custody filled out the Prison Society survey between April 15 and September 8, 2020. This report contains preliminary findings and recommendations to the State for improved response to the pandemic.
Summary of Findings:
On questions of hygiene and sanitation, large majorities of respondents said prisons are facilitating daily handwashing and are regularly cleaning communal areas. But many residents reported being unable to sanitize their cells on a regular basis, even though the Department’s policies require it to distribute supplies to enable daily cleaning of cells.
Even with increased hygiene, 56 percent of respondents said they did not feel safe in prison.
The quality of the communication from prison staff to people in custody factored into whether they felt safe in prison. Even in facilities with large outbreaks of the virus, residents tended to feel safe if they perceived that guards and administrators were communicating with them about changing circumstances and working to keep them safe.
One in six respondents said they could not access medical care. This appears to be a consequence of prisons restricting non-emergency care.
On the whole, survey findings highlight the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ success in quickly implementing needed hygienic measures. But there are several shortcomings for the Department to address.
To read the full report, click here.