Harrisburg, PA – Yesterday, Department of Corrections (DOC) leaders began to reorganize the state prison system to continue and improve its COVID-19 mitigation efforts. This 13-day system reset will maximize bed space throughout the DOC and changes the mission of the State Correctional Institution (SCI) at Smithfield (Huntingdon County). The facility will now serve as a central reception facility for new male inmate commitments and parole violators. It also will operate a new, regional infirmary for male inmates who do not have COVID-19.
"Just as we see a surge in community COVID-19 cases, our corrections/parole supervision system is experiencing a surge in cases. As a result, we are taking advantage of the nearly 6,000 decrease in our inmate population we've experienced since March to reorganize and reset our system," DOC Secretary John Wetzel said. "We look at this as a time of cleaning, healing and strengthening our system."
During the 13-day reorganization, Wetzel directed every facility to ensure that in-cell programming and activities, showers, emails and phone calls continue for all inmates. Video visits will be separate and in addition to the previously mentioned out-of-cell time.
"During this system reorganization, we will transfer inmates to other prisons to provide relief to some facilities whose designs provide mitigation challenges," Wetzel said. "We have a sound transfer protocol in place. We test inmates for COVID-19 prior to transfer. No one is moved unless they test negative. Once moved, the inmates are immediately quarantined for 14 days and are then tested again. We take the safety and health of our staff and inmates very seriously."
Beginning Jan. 4, new male inmates and parole violators will be accepted at SCI Smithfield, where they will receive mental health and medical evaluations and care. Inmates also will undergo a 21-day Yield Theory Program, which is a method of communication that is rooted in meeting people where they are, getting around their defensiveness and speaking in ways that can be heard. It is a proven method for deescalating others and lessening conflict. Inmates also will be provided with in-cell programing and activities that cover personal growth through the use of videos, movies and exercises.
"Individuals at this prison will be tested for COVID-19 on days 1, 7, 14 and 21," Wetzel added. "On day 22, they will go to SCI Camp Hill, where the rest of the classification process will be completed. This new process allows us to filter out COVID-19 at this location and better protect our staff and inmates in the rest of the system."
Wetzel confirmed that under this new operation, SCI Smithfield will not be delivering education or treatment programs nor will it have a Correctional Industries. Employees who provide these services will be transferred to other state prisons.
Also beginning Jan. 4, the DOC will open a new regional infirmary at SCI Smithfield, which will treat inmates from other state prisons who are being released from hospitals and who do NOT have COVID-19. The infirmary, which will begin operation with 25 beds and may increase the number of beds based on demand, will allow other state prison infirmaries to focus on COVID-19 treatment. This also will help to protect some of the agency's vulnerable and older inmates.
"This smart plan will address a number of operational issues we have been experiencing," Wetzel said. "We will ensure that staff has appropriate personal protective equipment, because these individuals could be asymptomatic for COVID-19, and we always err on the side of caution."
The DOC, on average and prior to COVID-19, receives approximately 1,500 new commitments, parole violators and county transfers monthly.
To learn more about the DOC's efforts to mitigate COVID-19 in its system, please visit https://www.cor.pa.gov/Pages/COVID-19.aspx.