WEST CHESTER — Chester County government and court officials are taking steps to prevent inmates and staff at the Chester County Prison from contracting the novel coronavirus that has infected more than 100 county residents and more than 2,200 statewide.
That includes staff and inmates wearing masks, screening those who enter the prison, and quarantining newly arriving prisoners until they appear symptom-free.
When the county commissioners issued “mission essential” guidelines on March 13 for government employees and departmental offices, they also announced that the prison would begin prohibiting visitors entering the facility see inmates, other than professional personnel such as defense attorneys.
But with an outbreak of the deadly virus at the Delaware County Prison on March 21 that infected three inmates and five employees at the privately-run facility in Concord, the county has not only stepped up testing of the population at the prison in Pocopson but also has begun taking measures to reduce the number of inmates in the facility who are at risk of the deadly virus, without compromising public safety.
“At all times, but especially now, a key priority of ours is the health and safety of the people of Chester County,” the three commissioners — Marian Moskowitz, Josh Maxwell, and Michelle Kichline — said in a joint statement Saturday. "The coronavirus situation is constantly changing, and we are doing everything we can to slow down, or even prevent the spread.
“This includes within places like the prison where we have set up measures to try and keep the virus from entering the facility, but also have plans on how to stop the spread, should it make its way in,” they said. Those efforts include population reduction, establishing safe distancing practices, and providing for quarantine areas.”
The county is working together with the District Attorney’s Office, the Office of Public Defender, the Adult Probation Department and the Court Administration Office, “to identify the health vulnerabilities of inmates, and the process for addressing those vulnerabilities while prioritizing the safety of our overall community.”
These temporary policies all follow guidelines from the Center for Disease Control, the state Department of Health, and the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections guidelines.
The effort appears to have produced results - fewer inmates at the county facility. On Feb. 28, just as the nation was awakening to the dangers of the spread of the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, the number of inmates at the prison on Wawaset Road was 746, according to prison figures. A month later, on Friday, there were 675.
That figure is the lowest in memory, those who get daily reports on the prison population said.
To date, no inmate has shown symptoms of the virus, so none have been tested. Only one staff member, a prison employee who was on leave for several weeks, has been tested. Those results are pending, according to county Communications Director Rebecca Brain.
“Chester County government’s actions and response to the coronavirus pandemic have been swift and effective, and are mindful of the impact that this outbreak is having on everyone in Chester County — including those who are currently incarcerated,” the commissioners' statement read.
“Steps have been taken, and continue to be taken, to reduce the prison population through bail and parole releases,” the trio said. “In doing so, the county has included a focus on prisoners who may be most at risk of infection. But, in considering all releases, the safety of the community remains of paramount concern.”
That final priority was addressed by District Attorney Deb Ryan, who said that her office continues to be cognizant of the need to put community safety from crime above all else while acknowledging there are ways to reduce the risk of coronavirus infection at the prison without endangering that safety.
“In this unprecedented climate we have been taking guidance from the (county) Department of Health and responding to requests from the prison as they arise,” she said in a prepared statement on Thursday. “We have been working with other agencies to identify individuals who are at greater risk of infection – such as older prisoners and those who have preexisting immunodeficiency concerns.
“Where appropriate, we have agreed to the release of non-violent offenders who are more susceptible to infection, while we balance our need to protect the community and effect justice,” Ryan said.
Likewise, Christopher Murphy, head of the county Office of Pre-Trial Services — otherwise known as Adult Probation and the Bail Agency, said his office, even as it operated on a reduced staff level during the emergency, was putting public safety at the top of its list, while recognizing that not everyone who commits a parole or probation violation needs to be locked up at the prison.
Murphy said that his office had examined the cases of inmates who are on work release, close to their minimum release dates, or in ill health.
“With the approval of the court, some have been paroled early, or put on electronic monitoring,” he said. “Some of those who have been ordered to participate in treatment while incarcerated have been referred to community programs and released.”
The probation office has also deferred preliminary violation hearings, unless the client is incarcerated, until after the courts are fully operational. President Judge John Hall has ordered most non-emergency proceedings in the courts postponed until April 14.
Murphy said the philosophy of his office has always taken into account the necessity of re-incarceration for those probationers accused of minor violations.
“We always look at who is going into jail. If they are a danger to the community, then they are likely going in. Our priority is to keep the community safe.” But he also said that probation officers try to assist those who find themselves in trouble, and now with increased joblessness and housing problems that desire has increased. If they need us we will be there,” he said.
The prison has implemented several temporary policy changes to keep staff and inmates as safe and healthy as possible, as the warden and his team deal daily with the concern regarding the spread of coronavirus. These temporary policies meet state guidelines and recommendations regarding contact and social distancing to prevent contamination and spread.
• All visitation — both direct contact and phone contact within the prison — has been temporarily suspended, as have community-based programs;
• All professional visits have been redirected to the phone visitation area;
• Screenings are undertaken of every person that enters the prison — staff and inmates — including specific questions about signs and symptoms of coronavirus, and taking the temperature of each individual that enters the prison every day;
• The facility undergoes daily continuous cleaning.
According to the commissioners, “to be fair, and to keep morale up during this stressful time,” all inmates are allowed free telephone calls each week. More video conferencing services and telephone lines have also been provided for the courts, public defenders and treatment programs — to prevent additional entrance into the facility, as well as limit transportation out of the facility.
The warden and his team are also currently reviewing possible future implementation of the following temporary additions during the coronavirus pandemic:
• A free weekly commissary gift package;
• “Access Securepak” for family members to order custom commissary packages online;
• Issuing computer tablets to provide communication, entertainment and education services.
In addition, the Chester County Youth Center, which houses juvenile offenders in pre-adjudication periods, has established its own set of guidelines to help prevent the entry of COVID-19 into the facility. They include no visitation, but additional telephone and video conferencing services offered for families; quarantining new arrivals; and screening of staff every time they enter the facility.
There are also restrictions on visitation at Pocopson Home, the county’s senior care facility.
To contact Staff Writer Michael P. Rellahan call 610-696-1544.