Pa. corrections officers push to stop inmate transfers; COVID-19 deaths rise to 7

KYW Staff
March 24, 2020 - 12:06 pm

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UPDATED: 2:35 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Pennsylvania's state corrections officers' union wants the state prison system to stop all transfers of inmates as a preventative measure against potential spread of the new coronavirus from one institution to another.

Meanwhile, more businesses are challenging Gov. Tom Wolf's order closing the physical locations of businesses determined to be "non-life-sustaining" as state officials warn that coronavirus cases will continue growing.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health confirmed 207 additional positive cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, and four new deaths, bringing the statewide total to 851 in 40 counties. There have been a total of seven deaths related to the virus.

Related: The latest coronavirus news from Pennsylvania and New Jersey

 

Officials say about 10 percent of the people who tested positive have been treated at the hospital.

As we prepare for a surge in hospitalizations, blood donations will be crucial, said Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine at a daily briefing on Tuesday.

She emphasized once again that the most important thing Pennsylvanians can do is stay home. For those who want to help their community while still practicing social distancing, she said people can donate to their local food bank.

Although 851 cases have been confirmed in the state, Levine said they do not keep track of those who have since recovered, so that amount is unknown.

Currently, the hardest hit counties are in southeastern Pennsylvania, namely Montgomery and Philadelphia counties. However, Levine expects COVID-19 to spread more to rural areas, though certainly not to the amount seen in more populated cities.

In the meantime, Wolf has ordered schools closed through at least April 6 and ordered 5.5 million people in the state's hardest-hit counties to stay home, other than going to work at a business that's still open or another errand involving health and safety.

Prison transfers

Larry Blackwell, the president of the 11,000-member corrections officers' union, said Tuesday that moving inmates between prisons risks unnecessarily spreading the virus to an institution, where it will be very difficult to stop it from spreading to other inmates and employees.

"The governor has called for all non-essential movement to halt, and this isn't essential," Blackwell said. "And the governor has the authority to shut down the movement of these prisoners. The counties, the state, let's just freeze everything until we figure out what's going on."

No case of the coronavirus has been discovered in the state prison system where roughly 45,000 inmates are housed and 16,000 people work, prison and union officials say.

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said through a spokeswoman that halting all transfers is not a "realistic plan at this point."

"We are doing everything we can to minimize the exposure to the system as a whole, but we are a system — and each facility in the system has a role," Wetzel said.

He said the prisons' staff are doing an incredible job in the midst of impossible circumstances and that corrections staff across Pennsylvania "has to pull together" against the virus.

The Department of Corrections has shut down some routine transfers between prisons, according to prison and union officials.

But the department is emptying Retreat state prison in northeastern Pennsylvania of hundreds of inmates by transferring them to other prisons, and it announced Monday that it will use Retreat as the reception facility for new male commitments from county jails and for male parole violators.

Other prisons, previously, had been used as reception facilities. Retreat, ultimately, is slated to be closed.

At the federal level, some members of Congress are calling for the Bureau of Prisons to stop transferring prisoners between institutions, at least until the inmates have been tested for the coronavirus.

Stay at home

A stay-at-home order for the Philadelphia suburbs went into effect Monday night. Wolf's order applies to counties hit hardest by the virus: Montgomery, Bucks, Chester and Delaware counties; Allegheny County, the Pittsburgh area out west; and Monroe County to the north.

A similar order was already in effect in Philadelphia.

Wolf says such an order may seem drastic but it had to be done.

"The point is before we can recover, we must survive. And to do that, every one of us must do our part," he said.

And that means, simply, stay home.

Residents are ordered to stay in and leave the house only for essential work or to get groceries and supplies; go to the doctor or a pharmacy; check up on family or friends. Outdoor exercise is fine, as is walking the dog, but with social distancing.

Whatever the case, Wolf says really think about it.

“You need to ask yourself, ‘Do I really need to make this trip? Or am I gonna put someone else’s life in jeopardy by making this trip.’”

The goal here, officials say, is to limit the opportunities the coronavirus can spread to buy time for the hospitals and health care system.

The order is in effect through April 6.

Legal actions

Several more businesses have filed a legal challenge to Gov. Wolf's order closing the physical locations of businesses determined to be "non-life-sustaining."

A petition filed in Commonwealth Court seeks to have Wolf's shutdown order thrown out. The plaintiffs are a law firm, a laundromat, a timber company and a golf course, all of which appeared on the governor's initial list of businesses that were to shut down as of Thursday night.

The Wolf administration has since revised the list, relaxing its blanket closure of law offices and placing laundromats and timber companies on the "life sustaining" list, allowing them to stay open.

But the lawsuit said Wolf "quite simply made up these categories and their terminology out of whole cloth," and alleges his shutdown order and subsequent revisions "caused mass confusion and disturbance throughout Pennsylvania."

Wolf has already beat back two other legal challenges to his authority to order businesses to close.

The governor says the state can cite businesses that don’t comply with the order, but now it’s all about everyone just taking this pandemic seriously.

"The enforcement issue is not really the key. The issue is making sure all of us, businesses, individuals, recognize the shared responsibility we have in making sure this works," he said.

Business closures

Pennsylvania State police say troopers issued 27 warnings, but no citations, based on Wolf's directive that businesses deemed not life-sustaining close down their physical locations during the first day of enforcement on Monday.

The largest number of warnings, four apiece, were issued in the troop regions headquartered in Greensburg, Erie and Harrisburg.

The state police commissioner, Col. Robert Evanchick, said Tuesday that the overwhelming majority of people and businesses were complying voluntarily with the order.

Warnings were issued as the first phase and other forms of enforcement will follow, if needed, Evanchick said.

PECO restoring connections

PECO is offering to resume service to customers who have been disconnected because they fell behind on their bill. The utility had earlier announced that it would not shut off electricity while the coronavirus pandemic is spreading.

Company officials say this new measure is to assure that families stuck at home have access to power.

Customers who have had their electricity shut off can call 800-494-4000 to begin the reconnection process. You will need your account number.

PECO says there will be no new connection fees or deposits required. Customers will continue to be responsible for unpaid balances but staff will work with them to enroll in assistance programs.

Interstate rest stops reopening

Motorists of all types, not just truck drivers, are getting access to indoor facilities at 23 interstate rest stops across Pennsylvania.

The state Transportation Department on Tuesday said it was reopening the indoor bathrooms and would keep them cleaned and maintained.

The agency had previously reopened a smaller number of stops, with portable restrooms, and made them available to truck drivers. The reopened indoor bathrooms are on interstates 79, 80, 81 and 84.

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KYW Newsradio's Tim Jimenez, Pat Loeb and Eric Walter, and The Associated Press, contributed to this report.