By MARC LEVY, MICHAEL RUBINKAM and MARYCLAIRE DALE Associated Press
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Gov. Tom Wolf is issuing an executive order Friday to authorize the early release of as many as 1,800 inmates from Pennsylvania state prisons in an effort to minimize the spread of the coronavirus.
he plan is similar to what other states and some Pennsylvania counties have undertaken, and it comes after talks broke down with Republicans who hold a majority in the state Legislature.
Wolf’s office said releasing inmates will save lives, help stop the spread of the virus and avoid overwhelming Pennsylvania’s already-burdened health care system.
“We can reduce our non-violent prison population and leave fewer inmates at risk for contracting COVID-19 while maintaining public safety with this program,” Wolf, a Democrat, said in a statement.
The releases, to halfway houses or home confinement, could start as early as Tuesday, according to the governor’s office.
The plan allows the release of inmates serving time for nonviolent offenses who are within nine months of scheduled release, or within 12 months for those considered at heightened risk from the virus.
The temporary reprieve program does not apply to inmates incarcerated for certain crimes, including violent crimes, crimes committed with a firearm, drug trafficking and sexual offenses. And it does not apply to inmates who have been denied parole or convicted of any offense while incarcerated.
Pennsylvania’s state prisons hold about 44,000 inmates. The Wolf administration said approximately 1,500 to 1,800 inmates are eligible, although some may not be released because of challenges involving health care or behavioral health treatment, as well as housing availability and food security.
House Republican leaders had sought to cap any release of inmates at 450.
Wolf’s order said the Department of Corrections will discuss each eligible inmate with the courts, the state attorney general’s office and county district attorney’s offices.
Inmates given reprieve are to be monitored similarly to parolees and supervised by parole agents, the administration said. They would return to prison to complete any remaining portion of their sentences when the order expires, it said.
The Wolf administration has disclosed that 11 inmates at the State Correctional Institution-Phoenix, in Montgomery County outside Philadelphia, have contracted the virus.
The prison system has been on inmate quarantine since March 29, with inmates being fed in their cells and all movement being controlled to achieve social distancing.
The Department of Health reported over 1,750 new cases Friday, bringing the statewide total to about 20,000. There were 78 new deaths, tying the previous single-day high, for a statewide toll of 416.
For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in a couple of weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are at higher risk of more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.
LONG LINE AT FOOD BANK
Motorists lined up for over a mile for emergency groceries offered Friday at a drive-up site run by a Pittsburgh food bank.
The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank planned to distribute two boxes of food to each vehicle, enough to make 40 meals. The food bank said it could offer help to 1,300 people at the three-hour event at PPG Paints Arena.
Aerial footage from KDKA-TV showed a long line of cars stretching over a mile. Long lines have been routine at emergency food giveaways held across the region in recent weeks.
Many people are seeking help for the first time, Charlese McKinney, a director at the Great Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, told KDKA, calling the need troubling.
“They had jobs, they were able to care for their families, but their hours have been reduced or their jobs have been furloughed for a time being,” McKinney said.
Friday’s event was co-sponsored by the Pittsburgh Penguins and Pittsburgh Police Department.