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COVID19-Related State Prison Incarceration Reprieves in Pennsylvania by Committing County

This map shows the percentage of COVID-related state prison incarceration reprieves by committing county in Pennsylvania, along with race and income data for each Pennsylvania county.

On April 10, 2020, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf “ordered Department of Corrections officials to establish a Temporary Program to Reprieve Sentences of Incarceration to help aid the department in the transfer of qualifying individuals to community corrections facilities or home confinement amid the COVID-19 pandemic” (see Press Release). The program applies to people incarcerated in Pennsylvania state prisons who are identified as being non-violent and otherwise eligible for release within the next nine months, or people considered at high risk for COVID-related complications and within twelve months of their release.

Pennsylvania currently has over 41,000 people incarcerated in its state prisons. Under the temporary reprieve program, approximately 1,500 to 1,800 incarcerated people would be eligible, although only 159 people have had their sentences reprieved through the program as of July 14, 2020 (Pennsylvania Department of Corrections). This reflects a systematic pattern amongst prison systems throughout the United States, where state prison populations have had much slower and minimal reductions due to COVID-19 compared to jail populations. According to the Prison Policy Institute, the typical state prison system has reduced its population by just 5 percent, whereas the typical jail has reduced its population by more than 30 percent due to COVID-19.

In addition to disparities between prison and jail population reductions, Pennsylvania counties show divergences in state prison receptions and COVID-related sentence reprieves. For example, 6 percent of people sent to Pennsylvania’s state prisons in 2018 were committed in Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located. None of the reprieves granted under the Temporary Program to Reprieve Sentences of Incarceration, however, were granted to people committed in Allegheny County. Likewise, while people committed to state prisons from Philadelphia County comprised over 16 percent of prison receptions in 2018, they make up less than 9 percent of those granted reprieves under the COVID reprieve program. The pop-up features on the map above enable comparisons of 2018 prison receptions per 10,000 people and temporary reprieves per 10,000 people for each Pennsylvania county.

The map above also contextualizes the places of re-entry for people who have been released from Pennsylvania state prisons under the Temporary Program to Reprieve Sentences of Incarceration. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has been directed to maintain post-release supervision and ensure that home and health care plans are in place for each person. This ongoing contact between people released from prisons and supervision officials such as parole officers can increase the risk of coronavirus spread. Understanding the racial and income contexts in which re-entry is occurring is an important step in holistically addressing the needs of formerly incarcerated people and their communities.

Since the number of incarcerated people who have had their sentences reprieved through the program is so small (even at the height of the first wave of the pandemic), it’s difficult to extract any significant trends between the proportion of inmates being released and the demographics of the committing country. However, a preliminary analysis of the data reveals some noteworthy correlations.

Counties with a significant Black population (over 10%) were half as likely to receive re-entrants based on temporary reprieves. Conversely, committing counties with the highest proportion of reprieves tended to be more white and with a slightly higher medium income than the average for all Pennsylvania counties. While we are unable to know the race and income of the people released under the temporary reprieve program, these statistics raise a concern that Black people are less likely to be released on a temporary reprieve and are therefore more likely to be exposed to COVID-19 in Pennsylvania’s state prisons.

The COVID-19 and Cages Mapping Project is lead by Celeste Winston, PhD, Temple University, Department of Geography and Urban Studies and Olivia Ildefonso, PhD Candidate, The City University of New York Graduate Center, GIS/Mapping Working Group.

Dr. Celeste Winston is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography and Urban Studies at Temple University. Dr. Winston’s research focuses on the social and environmental impacts of prisons and policing, and everyday Black placemaking beyond policing. She is a justice-centered social scientist and critical cartographer who aims to generate evidence of and for more livable and equitable geographies.

Olivia Ildefonso is a Ph.D. candidate in Earth and Environmental Sciences with a specialization in Human Geography at CUNY Graduate Center. She studies school segregation and local control. She currently holds a Graduate Center Digital Fellowship and teaches GIS and mapping. Olivia is also an anti-racist activist. She currently serves on the board of S.T.R.O.N.G. Youth and is a member of The Red Nation.

Learn about the rest of our team!