COVID-19 Cases, Deaths Skyrocketing in Commonwealth Prison System including at SCI Cambridge Springs, SCI Forest

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CAMBRIDGE SPRINGS, Pa. – COVID-19 cases are on the rise in the Pennsylvania prison system among both inmates and staff, including at SCI Forest and SCI Cambridge Springs.

But the Department of Corrections (DOC) and the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officer Association (PSCOA) have different views on the why.

In a three-week period from Friday, Nov. 13, to Friday, Dec. 4, positive staff/corrections officer cases and inmate cases at all prisons across Pennsylvania more than doubled, according to a COVID-19 dashboard provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

Positive staff cases rose from 728 Nov. 13 to 1,527 Dec. 4, an increase of 799 or nearly 110 percent, while inmate cases rose from 1,257 Nov. 13 to 2,622 Dec. 4, an increase of 1,365 or just over 108 percent. All numbers may lag behind real-time reporting by two to four days, DOC Press Secretary Maria Bivens told yourdailylocal.com.

Locally, staff positive cases at SCI Forest rose from eight Nov. 30 (a number that had held steady since Nov. 23) to 21 by Dec. 3 and 27 by Dec. 4, an increase of 237.5 percent. At SCI Cambridge Springs, staff positive cases rose from three cases Dec. 4 (a number that held steady since Nov. 24) to 14 by Dec. 3 and 20 by Dec. 4, an increase of 566.7 percent.

Inmate cases at SCI Cambridge Springs rose from one positive case Nov. 29 (a number that held steady since Nov. 20) to six by Nov. 30 and 29 by Dec. 4, while positive cases at SCI Forest went from three Nov. 30 (a number that held steady since Nov. 24) to seven by Dec. 3.

Bivens said the increase is reflective of what is going on in the community at large with cases rising across the Commonwealth over the same three-week period.

“Just like the numbers are rising in the community, they are rising in our prison system,” Bivens said. “The DOC is testing for COVID at a significantly higher rate than community testing.”

According to research done by yourdailylocal.com, using Pennsylvania Department of Health numbers, COVID-19 cases rose by just over 130,000 (130,555) from Nov. 13 to Dec. 4 in Pennsylvania as a whole, an increase of 54.6 percent, which was much lower than the increase seen by the DOC.

At the same time, Pennsylvania’s general testing numbers increased by 18 percent during the same time frame, while the DOC’s testing numbers increased 23.4 percent among the inmate population – from 30,397 to 37,532 tests given – and 94 percent among staff – from 3,136 to 6,086 test given. The positivity rate among prison staff is slightly higher than in the general population of Pennsylvania during that three-week period (27.08 percent to 26.1 percent) while the inmate positivity rate is lower at 19.13 percent. Staff positivity rate from the start of the pandemic rose from 23.21 percent on Nov. 13 to 25.09 percent Dec. 4 and inmate positivity rate rose from 4.13 percent Nov. 13 to 6.99 percent Dec. 4.

“I don’t know if I would use the word surprised,” John Eckenrode, the Western Region Vice President for the PSCOA said when asked by yourdailylocal.com about the increases. “They way (the DOC) is running quarantine with cohorts and basically the way the community is infected, I am not surprised. It is alarming, though. Not just in SCI Forest and SCI Cambridge Springs, but in other facilities. The numbers are astounding.”

It isn’t just the COVID-19 case numbers that are rising among the inmate population. Deaths have more than doubled since Nov. 1.

On Nov. 1, the DOC reported that from the start of the pandemic there were 14 deaths. By Dec. 4, it was being reported as 36 deaths, an increase of 157 percent.

In a Dec. 3 e-mail, Bivens said she had not had a chance to look at the increase in deaths but acknowledges an increase had occurred.

“I haven’t gone back and looked at the numbers for that period but there has been an increase in deaths with COVID this fall,” Bivens said.

Bivens did point out that the DOC death rate is lower than the community death rate and lower than the death rate at long-term care facilities despite a large percent of the inmate population having pre-existing health conditions.

“Our current COVID death rate is 0.9 deaths per 1,000 inmates,” Bivens said. “Our rate of deaths per positive case is still lower than in the community (1.6% of DOC positive cases versus 2.8% of community positive cases). Again, a larger percent of our population in DOC present with pre-existing health conditions that complicate COVID.”

Eckenrode believes a number of factors beyond community spread are at play as to why the case numbers – and subsequently the death numbers are increasing.

Pointing to SCI Cambridge Springs, Eckenrode said the layout of the facility may have something to do with the rise in cases.

“Cambridge Springs is more of an open layout, almost like an open-bay facility,” Eckenrode said. “There is a big number of inmates living together in the same room. It is not two inmates per cell. You might have an ‘x’ number living in the same cubicle. It’s not an actual prison cell where they are locked behind a door. Forest is more of a prototypical prison with a single cell or two inmates per cell. I think that is why you see a stark difference in the positive numbers between the two.”

Bivens said the DOC has separated its facilities into zones and does not allow staff and inmates to cross into other zones for any reason.

“We feed inmates in their cells/on the units (depending on whether they are under quarantine or not),” Bivens said. “We also keep inmates in small groups/cohorts, so that if one of them does develop symptoms, we are able to keep the impact to just that small group/cohort.”

Eckenrode, however, said the small group/cohorts, were something the DOC did at the start of the pandemic but those cohorts got bigger and bigger as the summer and fall went on.

“In March and April, even back in February, when it first started, I think the DOC did a fairly decent job keeping COVID out of the jails,” Eckenrode said. “In the initial setup was with very small cohorts. Every jail was different, but maybe 10 inmates could be together at any given time. When they ran some type of activity, only 10 came out, and as soon as one of them (in a cohort) or a few testing positive, there was no inmate movement. They also had staff making meals and doing all the work. Once COVID got in there it was shut down for two weeks, the areas were cleaned and there was limited movement. Fortunately, at the time, we wiped it out.

“Over time, they increased the cohort numbers,” Eckenrode added. “As of (Dec. 1) there were 64 out at one time, I think. I talked to some local officials at SCI Forest, and they had a meeting (Dec. 2) and they are trying to mitigate things, take the right steps. They reduced the cohorts from 64 to 16 and shut down the yard. They are trying to do a better job. I am not sure it is enough. The only way to stop it is to do what we did in March and lock it down, clean it, and limit the number of inmates coming out of the cell. We aren’t doing that anymore. My position is, if one inmate gets it, you have to stop it. The way the jails are laid out when one block gets it you shut down the block. But, as of (Dec. 1) they were still running activities.”

Eckenrode also was concerned about the lack of mask-wearing by inmates.

“One of the biggest problems we have is that while staff members are required to wear masks from the time they walk in until their shift is over, while the staff members have to go through temperature checks and COVID questions, inmates are encouraged to wear masks but are not held accountable. Correction officers and staff members are trying to enforce mandatory wearing of masks (among inmates) and are writing misconducts for inmates who won’t comply. Those misconducts are going before hearing examiners, there is a discipline system inside the jail, and the hearing examiners are dismissing the conduct.

“I don’t know if (masks work or not), but if you are going to make us wear a mask, why would you not make an inmate wear one too. It is very frustrating that our people wear them but when they tell inmates to do so, the inmates aren’t being made to do it.”

When asked to comment on the cohorts and other concerns Eckenrode had, Bivens initially said the union shouldn’t be talking to the media about its concerns.

“DOC leadership communicates with the union on a daily basis and they have regular contact with our executive and legislative staff as well,” Bivens said. “If the union has concerns they should address them directly with the DOC and not via the press.

“With that said, our protocol allows facilities to move back and forth often between phases depending upon COVID cases at their specific facilities, and they also do everything in consult with leaders/officials at Central Office. Everything is driven by the number of cases for employees and inmates.”

Bivens said the DOC agrees that both inmates and staff should be wearing masks but didn’t address Eckenrode’s concern about the enforcement.

“We agree, both inmates and staff should be wearing masks,” Bivens said. “Early on, the DOC issued a mandatory mask requirement. We continue to follow that mandate as well as the more restrictive (Pennsylvania) Department of Health guidelines that were just released.”

According to Bivens, the DOC is taking other measures to help limit the spread of COVID-19.

“The DOC takes COVID-19 very seriously and has a comprehensive plan to mitigate its impact on our system,” Bivens said. “Prison staff continue to perform enhanced screenings on employees, and those who fail are not permitted access to our facilities. Employees continue to sanitize the facility, and inmates have been separated based upon their negative or positive test results. Vulnerable inmates are tested and medically checked regularly. We continue to test anyone who reports influenza-like illnesses and isolate that person until results are received. At the same time, the inmates on that particular unit are placed on enhanced quarantine. If that test comes back positive, the housing unit where the inmate resides is immediately placed on a 14-day quarantine. Staff and inmates are reminded of the importance of mask-wearing, proper handwashing and how to cough/sneeze, etc. Both prisons (SCI Cambridge Springs and SCI Forest) continue wastewater testing and (SCI) Laurel Highlands will continue with the antigen testing of inmates. Officials are working closely with DOC leadership and are following PA Department of Health and CDC guidelines.”

Staffing is also becoming a problem with staff members being forced to quarantine either because of positive cases or close-contact to someone who was a positive case, according to Eckenrode.

That has led to an increase in staff being mandated overtime, Eckenrode said, and at least in one case, a staff member being brought back prior to quarantine ending.

“Overtime is completely out of control in most jails in Pennsylvania,” Eckenrode said. “Our people are mandated overtime at least once a week and maybe more than once a week, once every two or three days, our people are tired.

“It is getting so bad and it is so hard to find people to work. They are cutting corners to fill shifts.”

Eckenrode said in one case – a case he was told about but hadn’t verified – a corrections officer had tested positive and was supposed to be on 14-day quarantine and come back on a Wednesday.

“The Saturday before he was to come back, they called him and wanted him to come back Sunday. He said Sunday was his day off, so they then asked him to come back Monday. They brought him back early. Was he still contagious? I don’t know. I don’t know why they would bring him back. At the time, the CDC said 14 days of quarantine (it has now been changed to seven days with a negative test or 10 days), and they were making people come back at 10 days.”

Bivens said anyone asked to come back earlier than 14 days wasn’t a positive case but instead may have been a close contact and the close contact tests negative allowing the staff member to come back to work.

“Some staff are out on 14 days due to close contact and then the close contact test returns negative – so, in this type of case employees can return,” Bivens said. “Of course, all of this is reviewed by DOC leaders/officials before any changes are made.”

Neither Eckenrode nor Bivens knows when DOC staff or inmates will receive the much-anticipated vaccine.

“That has not been finalized,” Bivens said. “It is still in discussion.”

Eckenrode said he hasn’t heard anything on the vaccines being given to inmates or correction officers.

“The CDC is talking nursing homes and front line nurses and doctors and essential employees,” Eckenrode said. “They tell us we are (essential) but I am not sure we will fall under that category.”

Eckenrode praised the workers at all the state prisons.

“I think it is important for people to know that from Day One of this pandemic, the people working inside have gone to work and faithfully executed their duties as employees of the Commonwealth and have done it with tremendous respect,” Eckenrode said. “Others have been fortunate to work from home while our employees have been working in very cramped conditions and run the risk of getting infected and bringing it home. Hopefully, we get some light at the end of the tunnel for this.”