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PA Lags in Decarceration

The number of people incarcerated in Pennsylvania state prisons is the lowest it’s been in 20 years. Last week, Governor Wolf touted efforts by his administration that have reduced the prison population by 8,300 since the beginning of the pandemic. While this reduction is a major step in the right direction, Pennsylvania’s efforts to decarcerate during the pandemic still came up far short of what other states were able to achieve. The Prison Society is teaming up with our sister organizations in New York and Illinois to compare how the correctional systems in each of our respective states responded to the pandemic. When it comes to decarceration, Pennsylvania made the least progress of the three states. Pennsylvania's state prison population dropped by 18% from January 2020 to June 2021, while Illinois and New York achieved reductions of 28% and 26%, respectively. Those two states outperformed Pennsylvania despite starting with lower overall prison populations and rates of incarceration. Illinois now has about 10,000 fewer people in state prisons than Pennsylvania, though the population of the two states is comparable. The Prison Policy Initiative also reports that Pennsylvania’s decrease was not remarkable in the national context. Among 30 states for which the think tank obtained data, Pennsylvania’s decarceration was only slightly better than average. Efforts to release people from state custody fell short At the beginning of the pandemic, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections estimated that 12,000 people in custody would need to be released to stop COVID-19 from spreading behind bars. The state has come up nearly 4,000 short of that goal, as policies aimed at releasing more people from prison have had limited impact. Governor Wolf enacted a program under which less than 200 people were granted temporary release. The DOC has said it is “maximizing” use of parole and expediting the release of parolees, but according to the Prison Policy Initiative, Pennsylvania actually approved fewer people for parole in 2020 than it did the previous year. Rather than being the result of a surge in releases, the 18% population decrease appears to have come mainly from fewer admissions to state prisons as criminal trials and sentencing stalled during the pandemic. In other words, it may simply be the temporary effect of delays in court proceedings, rather than an enduring reduction. The machinery of the court system is moving again, and county jail populations have risen across much of Pennsylvania. To keep the state’s incarcerated population trending downward, the state and counties will have to expand efforts to release people from custody and reduce the use of incarceration. Upcoming report will put Pennsylvania in context Governor Wolf's decision to hold-up the 8,300 reduction in the state prison population as a policy victory, despite the fact that this reduction is both temporary and comparatively small, shows the importance of context. Thanks to the support of the national foundation, Arnold Ventures, the Prison Society is proud to be partnering with our sister organizations the Correctional Association of New York and the John Howard Association of Illinois to put the actions of our respective Departments of Corrections in context. Stay tuned for our upcoming report, The Pandemic In Prisons: A Three State Comparison, coming next month. The Prison Society calls on all state and county officials to renew their efforts to safely reduce the number of people incarcerated in prisons and jails. We also call on all state and county officials to:

  • Continue to offer COVID-19 vaccinations to all people in custody and staff in prisons and jails;

  • Implement weekly, rapid testing of all staff that come into contact with people in custody until they are vaccinated;

  • Require that every county publicly report prison testing results and virus-related deaths in custody;

  • Test and quarantine every new person entering custody; and

  • Eliminate the medical co-pay for accessing health care while in custody.

If you have questions about COVID-19 in Pennsylvania prisons, visit our COVID-19 landing page or email

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