The state Department of Corrections has doubled down on its policy not to always inform families of inmates who are sickened or killed by the coronavirus, saying it’s the responsibility of inmates to ensure their emergency contacts are complete and accurate.
Last month, a Spotlight PA report found that while the department has the power to decide when to release medical information, some family members of those who are incarcerated said they were kept in the dark as their loved ones fell ill and, in some cases, died.
Nonprofit organizations and attorneys point to a waiver issued by the federal government in March that gave hospitals the discretion to release such information to family and friends during a public health emergency. But the department said that waiver doesn’t apply to prisons.
“So, when you see reports or accounts that an inmate’s family wasn’t notified of an illness or death, this could be the rational explanation,” the department wrote, adding that prisoners can fill out additional paperwork to authorize the release of their information to a second person.
For many inmates, however, their emergency contact information is as old as when they received it, which was the day they were imprisoned. And families and prison rights groups said the department is not doing enough to inform prisoners about the importance of updating their information.
In a post to its website this month, the department said it will only release information to a single person listed as an emergency contact, regardless of whether that person is a family member or “next of kin,” which is the typical process for authorities to notify a family of a death.
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