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Vaccination rates are rising among people incarcerated in Pennsylvania prisons, and case rates are falling. But a number of the system’s COVID-19 prevention measures are still in place, and prisoner advocates and family members say they seem to be outlasting their usefulness.
When the pandemic first hit, prisons locked down completely. Virtually all the activities many incarcerated people are allowed to do — going to the prison library, doing various jobs, taking classes, going outside to the yard — were suspended, creating what advocates said was near-solitary confinement.
Martha Williams’ 25-year-old son, Damir Williams, is at State Correctional Institution Albion in Erie County.
Damir was sentenced to life without parole two years ago after a conviction for second-degree murder — a jury found him guilty of choking an elderly man during a robbery. The man later died of pneumonia, and a medical examiner ruled that it was caused by the incident. Williams believes he was wrongly convicted.
Martha, who works with the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration, says the normal stress of having a child locked up and far from home skyrocketed during the pandemic, when information about what was going on inside was limited. As cases kept breaking out in prisons around the state, she worried constantly that he’d get sick.
She says things are a little better now. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has a new video-calling system in place, so she can see her son’s face with some regularity. But the things he tells her about his day-to-day life deeply concern her.
“They’re getting now maybe an hour a day” out of the cell, she said. “By the time you shower and you check your tablet for your email and make a phone call, that’s that.”
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