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Poor Conditions at Pennsylvania Jail Heighten COVID-19 Concerns

Authorities Should Move Swiftly on Releases

Twelve people at George W. Hill Correctional Facility (GHCF) in Delaware County, Pennsylvania recently tested positive for COVID-19, raising serious concerns. Jails and prisons are incubators of infectious diseases like COVID-19, but conditions at GHCF make it particularly vulnerable to outbreaks, putting people inside and outside the facility at risk.

The George W. Hill Correctional Facility (GHCF) in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. © Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch visited the jail in October 2019 as part of research into high incarceration rates across the United States for probation and parole violations, often for minor conduct like missing required meetings, using drugs, and moving residences without permission.

We spoke with individuals held in GHCF and a guard, who described rampant overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.

Officials at the jail regularly hold many people together in one intake cell for several days, sometimes more. On the day we spoke to a guard, 59 people were housed in the cell, which has no beds or toilets, the guard said. Guards sometimes deny requests to use a bathroom, leaving people to urinate on themselves or into milk cartons.

Some formerly incarcerated at GHCF report similar conditions and have filed lawsuits making similar claims, prompting the formation of an advocacy organization aimed at reforming the jail.

Since the coronavirus pandemic, officials have reduced GHCF’s population from 1,880 to 1,387. Authorities have also released people from other facilities and are reviewing more.

A reporter said that Darrell Bassett, who was detained at GHCF on misdemeanor marijuana charges, was sick with COVID-19 and on a county list of individuals eligible for release. But officials would not release him due to a parole “detainer” from another county.

Many of the 37,000 people confined in Pennsylvania’s jails are, like Bassett, in on detainers. These require people to stay in jail, sometimes for weeks or months, waiting for hearings to determine whether they violated their probation or parole conditions. Following a recent lawsuit challenging jailing during the pandemic, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court – while declining to order individuals released – directed courts to find ways to reduce jail populations.

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections announced on March 28 it will review individual detainers – but real urgency is needed.  

Officials should prioritize for release people not accused of serious offenses who pose no known danger to others, including those held in on detainers, as well as those at high risk of serious effects from the virus, among others.

Swift action to reduce incarceration could mean the difference between life and death for those inside and outside GHCF and similar facilities.

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