Letter to Gov. Wolf, Secretary Levine and Secretary Wetzel urging compassionate release for elderly, vulnerable prisoners as COVID-19 crisis worsens

December 18th, 2020

Governor Tom Wolf,

Department of Health Secretary Rachel Levine,

and Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel

Office of the Governor

508 Main Capitol Building

Harrisburg, PA 17120

Dear Governor Wolf, DOH Secretary Levine, and DOC Secretary Wetzel:

As COVID-19 continues to sweep through the Commonwealth, the ever-mounting challenges to public health and safety continue to threaten our most vulnerable populations.  In the face of this growing health crisis, I ask that you act urgently to provide compassionate release for our inmates in prisons across the state.

The Department of Corrections (DOC) is currently battling a devasting outbreak of COVID-19 within their facilities, endangering the safety and well-being of inmates and staff. I’ve had several constituents come to me with stories of loved ones in state correctional facilities dealing with COVID outbreaks, with no information about their loved ones’ safety. In one heartbreaking case, one person did not learn their brother was sick with COVID and on a ventilator until 3 weeks later, after hours of pushing through needless gatekeeping and stonewalling. In another, a constituent's husband was due for release but is still held in a state facility because he has not completed group counseling, a program that has been delayed due to COVID and could be completed while on parole.

With over 47,000 individuals incarcerated in state prisons and community corrections centers, the increasing risk of this virus spreading to high-risk inmates is unacceptable.  As of 2018, nearly 1,900 individuals within the DOC population were over the age of 60, with many more under that age suffering from co-morbidities or otherwise compromised health.  Needlessly keeping elderly or compromised inmates incarcerated to face the pandemic without their loved ones and at constant risk of infection is inhumane and you must ensure that this does not continue.

Even with DOC policy providing for social distancing and increased sanitation, state prisons are no place for our vulnerable population.  Movement in and out of these facilities and possible infections being brought in by staff create epicenters of spread, while the stress on both inmates and their families can be torturous.  I am asking that you immediately take action to protect the elderly and vulnerable population incarcerated in state prisons by implementing a comprehensive compassionate release plan to bring individuals home quickly and safely.  The number of individuals clustered together in our SCIs must be reduced if we are to provide a truly healthy, rehabilitative environment.

To do this, I ask that the following measures as endorsed by the ACLU-PA be taken immediately:

  • Explore emergency measures to release as many elderly or vulnerable inmates from prison as quickly and safely as possible
  • Mandate that those processing these releases are coordinating with local service providers and public health experts to provide individuals who may not be able to return home with safe, accessible housing and access to medical facilities and services.  Individuals must not be released into ICE custody
  • Mandate data collection and distribution from all criminal legal system agencies and actors who are part of the state’s coronavirus response
  • Direct the DOC to exercise its authority and direct Community Corrections Centers to immediately grant furloughs to individuals in its centers who have home options to reduce the population during this crisis and make medical furloughs immediately eligible for vulnerable populations in all facilities, expediting their processing and release
  • Consider issuing executive orders that seek to achieve the goals and remedies outlined above.

Probation and parole agents and board must also exercise their authority to quickly reduce the prison population.  Individuals who have served their minimum terms must be released, with criteria immediately established for individuals who have hit their minimum dates and are now parole eligible that gives them the presumption of parole if they have been misconduct free for a certain amount of time, have demonstrated rehabilitation, or are deemed low risk.  Individuals who have not reached their minimum dates must also be considered, with the Parole Board seizing all opportunities to expedite the process.  Hearings should be waived for individuals meeting the categories of presumption of parole, with immediate parole following.  Individuals not meeting those criteria must have their hearings expedited.  In addition, the Board of Pardons must act and convene an emergency session to conduct merit reviews on current cases, with an eye towards particularly vulnerable individuals.  Meritorious cases should have public hearings conducted immediately in order to recommend as many people as possible for commutation. 

Additionally, no one should be coldly informed weeks after the fact that their loved one is suffering from COVID. I call upon you and the appropriate agencies to ensure that timely and compassion notification is given to next of kin of an inmate acquiring COVID.

Thank you for your attention to this important and ever-pressing issue.  The likelihood of our correctional facilities and centers becoming dangerous hotbeds of COVID-19 spread is imminent.  As elected officials, we must work to ensure the safety and survival of our most vulnerable, even more so during this crisis. If you would like to speak with me about this topic, please do not hesitate to contact my office.


State Representative Rick Krajewski

188th Legislative District