The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) announced Monday that, beginning March 28, it will use SCI-Retreat near Wilkes-Barre as its only intake point for new male inmates and parole violators, a move designed to keep coronavirus from entering the state prison system for as long as possible.

“Currently, we have no positive cases of COVID-19 in our state prison inmate population, and we are working to delay the virus entering our system,” Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said.

“This change in how we receive newly sentenced inmates and parole violators will reduce the number of ways individuals enter our system. With this plan, moving forward, only one facility will be involved, greatly reducing the ways the virus can enter our system.”

New male inmates and parole violators will now undergo an intake quarantine period at SCI-Retreat, then be sent to SCI-Camp Hill for classification and evaluation.

In preparation for the move, Wetzel sent a letter on Monday to every county jail in Pennsylvania, informing wardens that the DOC is putting a hold on accepting new inmates and parole violators for several days. He also held a conference call to inform county sheriffs of the pause.

While that pause is ongoing, DOC officials will reduce the inmate population at SCI-Retreat by transferring inmates to other state prisons. Some inmates will be left there to work in “dietary and maintenance areas.” Officials also are increasing the number of medical staff and the amount of medical supplies at SCI-Retreat, according to the DOC.

New female inmates and parole violators will continue to be received at both SCI-Muncy near Williamsport and SCI-Cambridge Springs in Crawford County, but SCI-Muncy will only accept new commitments on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Wetzel said the DOC’s top goal is “to safely and responsibly reduce the prison system’s population while minimizing the risk that new commitments present by localizing their commitment at a site that will be set up to quarantine by commitment cohorts, with staff equipped in personal protective equipment.”

Some steps being taken by the DOC to reduce the state prison system’s population include:

• working with the state parole board to maximize releases;

• reviewing parole detainers for individuals in county jails and state prisons;

• expediting the release process for any inmate with a pending home plan;

• reviewing inmates who are beyond their minimum sentences;

• reducing the number of reentrants in halfway houses;

• and giving each released inmate a medical screening and referring him or her to a doctor when appropriate.

Wetzel said the DOC receives approximately 150 new male inmates and parole violators each week.

“We are doing all we can to mitigate the impact this virus will have on our system,” he said.

“All ideas are being considered.”

Mark Pesto is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkPesto.

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