Legislative proposal seeks to protect vulnerable inmates from COVID-19

HARRISBURG, March 8 – State Reps. Rick Krajewski, D-Phila., and Ed Gainey, D-Allegheny, are introducing a bill that would protect elderly and ailing inmates from contracting COVID-19 by granting them a reprieve of their prison sentence.

Their proposal would create a streamlined process for identifying and releasing inmates who are no longer a threat to society. It would establish automatic eligibility for all incarcerated people over the age of 65 and those with underlying conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID-19. It would allow those inmates to return home where they can isolate and properly protect themselves from the virus.

"Over the past year, 110 incarcerated people and four state prison employees have died after contracting COVID-19," Krajewski said. "That's 114 people who received the death penalty to which no judge sentenced them. The fact that so many people remain behind bars today is not only willful ignorance of the danger of this virus, but it is a shameful violation of human rights and a dereliction of duty by our government to exercise humanity and compassion.

"While we cannot bring back those we've already lost to the virus, we can save others from the same fate," Krajewski said. "In April, Governor Wolf and Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel announced a targeted reprieve effort to protect the lives of inmates who are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus given their advanced age or health conditions. The bill Representative Gainey and I are introducing would build on the governor’s executive order.”

The legislators said the legislation would not only protect inmates, but also protect corrections officers. Just like other frontline workers, these officers are at risk of contracting the virus every day at work. That risk then spreads to their families and communities.

“Reducing the prison population and releasing the most vulnerable inmates who no longer pose a threat to their community is an option that benefits everyone,” Gainey said. “As legislators, it’s our responsibility to make sure the most vulnerable populations have the means to protect themselves, and that includes incarcerated people and correctional staff.”

Krajewski said the issue of working to get reprieve for incarcerated people during the pandemic is one that grabbed his attention when people in his district shared their personal stories with him. It's why he's continued to speak out and to bring awareness to the issue, including during an event on March 2 in Chester County.

"Hearing their painful stories – that they didn't get to say goodbye to a loved one, and they didn't get to be there to offer comfort in their final moments – it's heartbreaking," Krajewski said. "And it doesn't have to be this way. So, we're going to work to stop it from happening to others, and that's what this legislation would do."

Their proposal is expected to be officially introduced in the near future.