EXCLUSIVE: Unvaccinated Pennsylvania Prisoners Stuck in Lockdown

By Beth Brelje
Beth Brelje
Beth Brelje
Beth Brelje is an investigative journalist covering Pennsylvania politics, courts, and the commonwealth’s most interesting and sometimes hidden news. Send her your story ideas: Beth.brelje@epochtimes.us
January 25, 2022 Updated: January 26, 2022

Unvaccinated inmates in Pennsylvania’s state prisons are being held in lockdown conditions indefinitely, unless they submit to vaccination. It means they must stay in their cells 22 hours a day.

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, which oversees state prisons, denies lockdowns are related to vaccination.

“Out-of-cell time may vary based on a number of factors, but inmates are not—and have not been—locked down based on vaccination status,” Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Press Secretary Maria Bivens told The Epoch Times in an email. “Vaccination among the inmate population is voluntary, and approximately 90 percent of inmates have been vaccinated against COVID-19.”

Pennsylvania offered inmates $25 in commissary credit as an incentive to get vaccinated.

Bivens did confirm that unvaccinated inmates are housed in a separate unit from the vaccinated population.

A document obtained by The Epoch Times shows that vaccinated and unvaccinated inmates are treated differently, and those who wish to move about, outside their cells normally, must get vaccinated.

At the State Correctional Institution Coal Township, unvaccinated inmates have been on lockdown since Thanksgiving Day, inmates have reported to families. It has now been more than 60 days. An estimated 100 inmates are currently locked down there. The Epoch Times is not naming inmate families because they fear retaliation for the incarcerated.

As of the last week of January, 9 percent of inmates across the state system, 3,233 inmates, were unvaccinated.

At the same time, 51 percent of staff are unvaccinated, 7,847 staff system-wide, according to Department of Corrections statistics. The department notes that vaccinations administered to staff off-site are self-reported, and employees are not required to report protected health information to the department, meaning there could be more vaccinated employees.

“The DOC’s primary concern throughout the pandemic has been the health and safety of inmates, staff, and the community,” Bivens said. “Universal masking, enhanced cleaning, social distancing (via reduced cohort sizes and a zoning concept that prevents different groups of inmates from coming into contact with each other), and an exemplary 90 percent inmate vaccination rate have helped the Department’s COVID-19 mitigation continue to be largely successful, both at SCI Coal Township and systemwide. SCI Coal Township reports just 34 active COVID cases, out of an inmate population of more than 1,500. To help protect inmates, facility staff must either be vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to weekly testing.”

Unvaccinated inmates also have not been allowed to have in-person visitors, although on Monday, the Department of Corrections announced it will suspend all in-person visitation at state prisons from Jan. 27 through Feb. 28, due to a surge of COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania.

No Advocate for the Unvaccinated

Formed in Philadelphia in 1787, the Pennsylvania Prison Society’s mission is to “ensure humane prison and jail conditions and advocate for sensible criminal justice policies.” Pennsylvania law authorizes the Prison Society to designate volunteers to visit any prison or jail in Pennsylvania. These “official visitors” have authority to privately interview any inmate in any prison or jail for any reason, its website says. The group also advocates for inmates to have easy access to the vaccine.

The organization was uneasy about discussing specifics regarding conditions for the unvaccinated.

“We are told it has been more difficult for unvaccinated people,” John Hargreaves, volunteer director at the Pennsylvania Prison Society, told The Epoch Times.

The Prison Society showed they are not advocating for unvaccinated inmates in lockdown.

“They get at least two hours out of the cells, so I guess it depends on how ‘lockdown’ is defined,” Hargreaves said. “About 155 have died, all unvaccinated, and that is very troublesome.”

Like nursing homes and other group-living facilities, prisons must navigate the complicated responsibility of protecting the health of the entire population.

“With many incarcerated people medically compromised due to age or chronic lack of access to health care, an outbreak in a prison can be particularly deadly. Incarcerated people die from COVID-19 two to three times as often as infected people in the community,” according to a report released last month titled “Three State Prison Oversight During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” The report was co-authored by the Pennsylvania Prison Society, The John Howard Association of Illinois, and the Correctional Association of New York, the only three states in the country with non-governmental prison oversight bodies.

“We get calls on a daily basis from loved ones that are concerned about access to programming, access to visit, phone calls, shower time,” The Society’s Social Services Director, Kirstin Cornnell, said in the report, “but it’s really hard to give a clear, consistent answer about what’s happening.” She was referring to early in the pandemic (2020) when movement was restricted for all inmates.

“These lockdown procedures are causing more harm than they are good … There’s real concerns about mental health. And I don’t think we’ll really understand the toll of this last year for a long time,” she said in the report, again referring to 2020.

The report underscores how difficult life in lockdown can be. “Isolation is especially difficult in prison, because in the context of incarceration, it is synonymous with punishment, and often the cells used for medical isolation have been the same as those used for punishment,” the report said. Many of the unvaccinated do have a cellmate, but that is not always the ideal social choice.

“It’s very difficult mentally,” Hargreaves said. It can be stressful to be on lockdown and with lack of exercise and socialization, it’s harder to relieve stress, he said.

For inmates who wish to remain unvaccinated, sovereignty over their own bodies means lockdown without advocacy and without end. Families wishing to help them get out of lockdown have no place in the prison system to turn.

Beth Brelje
Beth Brelje is an investigative journalist covering Pennsylvania politics, courts, and the commonwealth’s most interesting and sometimes hidden news. Send her your story ideas: Beth.brelje@epochtimes.us