WEST CHESTER — The assumed heightened risk of infection from the novel coronavirus within the nation’s prisons and detention centers has led advocates for inmates at those facilities — including the Chester County Prison — to call for the release of those criminals who have not gone to trial on their cases but who remain incarcerated because of a failure to post bail.
“As schools and businesses across the state have been under lockdown in response to this crisis, our communities remain under threat to the virus through our prison system,” said representatives of the group Chester County Stands Up, an advocacy organization for poor and working people and families, in a recent press release.
“Incarcerated individuals are unable to adopt social distancing due to bunk sharing, extremely close quarters, and lack of adequate sanitation and medical infrastructure. Jails create such perfect conditions for an outbreak that it’s not a question of ‘if,’ but ‘when,” according to the group’s statement asking county officials to take steps to significantly reduce the prison’s population.
News that two inmates and three corrections officers at the Pocopson facility has also spread concern among both inmates there and their families and friends on the outside that not enough protection could be offered in such an environment, which some have called a “petri-dish” for the disease’s growth.
And defense attorneys are filing a multitude of emergency motions for bail for their clients, citing the public health risk the virus presents to the detainees, some with filings that mirror one another almost word for word.
But at least one county Common Pleas Court judge reviewing such motions last week said he was determined to look at the requests for pre-trial or early release on a case-by-case basis, and would start his assessment of the request with a determination not so much as whether prison represents a danger to the inmate, but whether the inmate would present a danger to the community.
“In my mind, the first thing is the nature of the crime that put the defendant in jail in the first place,” in determining whether a defendant should be given reduced or nominal bail, said Judge David Borther during a bail hearing in court on Friday. He expressed skepticism that the factors at the county prison said to put inmates there at risk of infection or an “imminent threat to (their) life and to the health and safety of the community” would “warrant heightened concern.”
Bortner’s comments came after a representative of the county District Attorney’s Office argued that the practices and policies put in place at the prison to deal with the spread of coronavirus, and the combined efforts of the D.A.’s Office, the county Public Defender’s Office, the county Court Administration, to reduce the prison population, had left the prison free from the threat of a widespread outbreak of the disease there.
“The Chester County Prison has been proactively doing everything it can” in a “safe and rational basis” balanced with concerns for public safety — “to limit the presence of new COVID-19 cases” there,” said D.A.’s Chief of Staff Andrea Cardamone during one of the bail hearings before Bortner Friday.
“We are lucky in Chester County,” said Cardamone. “We are not a ticking time bomb. And we don’t have a lot of people sitting at Chester County Prison for no good reason.”
In the end, Bortner reduced the bail of one of the defendants before him, cutting it in half, from $50,000 to $25,000, and allowing the inmate to post 10 percent of that amount, as recommended by the county’s bail agency. But he denied the request of a second, saying that the man posed a true danger to the community if released. That inmate’s bail remained at $2 million on one case and $500,000 on another.
On Wednesday, county officials reported that three members of the prison staff had tested positive for COVID-19, and one inmate had been tested for the virus, the result of which was pending. The positive tests were confirmed by the county Health Department and were the first persons to have shown symptoms of the disease, which has killed 74 Pennsylvania residents and more than 7,800 in the United States.
All three prison staff members contacted prison officials when they began showing symptoms at home and did not report for duty at the facility this week. One was hospitalized, while the others remained quarantined at home.
On Friday, the county reported that two inmates had tested positive for the virus, and that another three had been tested and were awaiting the results. All five inmates are isolated in the prison’s medical unit, and are displaying mild symptoms, according to the county.
“As a result of this, and as part of the prison’s preventative plan, (Warden Edward McFadden) has implemented procedures to minimize contact and increase social distancing,’ said the county in a statement. “This includes no movement between prison blocks for inmates and for staff, and significant reduction in numbers for activities to increase the opportunity for social distancing. Cleaning of the facility has also been heightened.
A concerted effort to safely reduce the prison population over the past few weeks has reportedly opened up additional blocks within the prison that could be set aside for isolation and quarantining if necessary, Cardamone told Bortner at the bail proceedings on Friday.
The county said that the population at the prison on Friday was 639, down from 746 at the end of February. The prison was built to house 1,105 inmates, both maximum security and minimum.
According to the county, in accordance with guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the state Department of Health and the state Department of Corrections guidelines, all prison staff are wearing masks when in contact with inmates. All staff continues to be fully screened for COVID-19 symptoms every time they enter the prison facility.
Inmates and their advocates have complained that they are not given masks or gloves to wear and that the prison has not distributed hand sanitizer. Cardamone told Borther that each inmate is given two bars of soap to clean their hands; hand sanitizer can be corrupted to become pure alcohol, which inmates have been known to consume.
But the county said that in addition to implementing procedures that minimize contact and increase social distancing, further protection measures are being taken for inmates, including regular temperature checks regular monitoring of symptoms for COVID-19, and wearing of masks and gloves by inmates who undertake certain jobs within the prison.
The defendants whose bail motions were heard by Bortner on Friday included a Montgomery man who led state police on a brief vehicle chase that ended with a startling crash captured live on a door-cam video in the southeast end of the borough, and an Iraq War veteran who barricaded himself inside a Spring City home after firing shots at a relative and holding emergency personnel at bay for several hours with gunfire.
In his motion for emergency bail, Kyle Sims of Conshohocken, who was arrested by state police in October after racing away from a traffic stop in West Chester during which he asked a trooper whether he liked the new Kanye West recording, argued that he deserved pre-trial release because the prison “has never confronted a global health pandemic like this one.
“Detainees and staff or to isolate or treat individual who become infected,” Sims’ attorney, Marissa M/ Ramsay of the West Goshen firm of Ramsay & Ramsay. His detention on $50,000 cash bail, set at his preliminary hearing, “poses an imminent threat to his life and to the health and safety of the community from a deadly infectious disease.”
Bortner said he noted that Ramsay’s motion appeared to repeat language in other similar motions for emergency release he had read, making it a “boilerplate” motion. In agreeing to reduce the bail for Sims — a personal trainer who apparently counts as his client players on the Philadelphia Sixers NBA team — Bortner said he accepted the bail agency’s recommendation that he be given the opportunity to post bail at a reduced amount, and not because of the coronavirus threat.
To contact staff writer Michael P. Rellahan call 610-696-1544.