Philadelphia prison system reports first inmate death

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An inmate in the Philadelphia jail system succumbed to complications related to COVID-19 Tuesday, becoming the first virus-related death connected to the city’s prisons, which have become a hotspot for the disease.

The prisoner was a woman in her 40s who had an underlying medical condition. Officials did not release her name or why she was incarcerated, though Prison Commissioner Blanche Carney said she had been in jail for more than 500 days.

Carney also said the inmate who died was not eligible for early release.

Three other inmates are hospitalized, and a total of 54 are currently battling the coronavirus. An additional 13 tested positive but have since recovered, officials said.

“Any death is tragic,” Mayor Jim Kenney said. “I want to remind everyone that incarcerated men and women are human beings. They are someone’s family member and friend, and we owe them the dignity of acknowledging their life and their passing.”

Earlier this month, Philadelphia’s prison system instituted a shelter-in-place policy. Inmates, all of whom have been provided with masks, are only allowed to leave their cells for showers and phone calls, according to the city.

Kenney said he is confident in the procedures that have been put in place to protect prisoners in the city’s jails.

He also said the city’s prison population has been decreased by 13 percent, or about 650 inmates, since March 16. Last week, Philadelphia courts began holding expedited review hearings with attorneys by phone to facilitate the process of releasing some inmates.

In state prisons, 14 inmates, all at SCI Phoenix in Montgomery County, have tested positive, and 22 employees have caught the virus. City officials have not said how many correctional officers have been infected.

One state prisoner, a 67-year-old serving a life sentence after being convicted of a murder in Philadelphia, has died from COVID-19.

Gov. Tom Wolf on Friday announced a temporary program that would allow certain nonviolent inmates to be released from the prison system.

Nonviolent prisoners who are within nine months of their release date would be eligible, as would nonviolent offenders who are 65 and older, pregnant or have a serious medical condition and are within a year of their release.

Between 1,500 and 1,800 inmates would be eligible, according to Wolf’s office. There were about 45,000 people in state custody as of March 31.

Some, including District Attorney Larry Krasner and criminal justice advocates, have pushed for more robust efforts, including releasing violent offenders who are elderly or have served decades behind bars.

Philadelphia on Tuesday reported 16 new COVID-19-related deaths, not counting the inmate, and 317 additional cases of the virus. So far, more than 7,100 have tested positive, and 206 people have died.

Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said the number of new cases may be falsely low because some labs are not reporting test results.

A total of 1,361 people are hospitalized with the coronavirus in Philadelphia and its Pennsylvania suburbs, officials said. Farley checked in with leaders of the region’s major health systems Monday.

“All the hospitals are busy,” he said. “Some of them are treating dozens of COVID patients. Some of them are closer to capacity than others, but all of them are able to handle it.”

About 37 percent of hospital beds are still open, and 30 percent of intensive care beds are empty, according to Farley. He said the city is on track to open a makeshift hospital space at the Liacouras Center to handle overflow patients if need be.

City Managing Director Brian Abernathy said 44 people are staying at city-run quarantine sites, most at the Holiday Inn Express on Walnut Street. An additional location has also been opened for first responders, though he said more details on the site would be released in the coming days.

Rite Aid last month began testing for the virus at its store at 7401 Ogontz Ave. in West Oak Lane, and now the pharmacy chain is allowing people to test themselves at the site.

After registering online and securing an appointment, those being tested will drive to a tent outside the store, where they will administer a nasal swab with the guidance of one of the store’s pharmacists, who will be at least 6 feet away, a company spokesperson said.

The West Oak Lane store had only been testing healthcare workers and first responders with symptoms, but is now accepting a wider array of people. Those interested in getting a test can visit www.riteaid.com.

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