Proactive quarantine measures have helped Westmoreland County Prison officials hold off the spread of coronavirus among the inmate population at the Hempfield Township facility, but warden John Walton warned the county’s prison board on Monday that an influx of new inmates is presenting a challenge.

There are 48 cells at the prison reserved for quarantining new inmates, one per cell, away from the general population. Only two of those cells were unoccupied as of Monday’s meeting, according to Walton.

Originally, the prison had been holding new inmates in quarantine cells for 14 days, then administering coronavirus tests and awaiting negative test results before moving inmates to the general population. Because of the surge in new commitments, the prison has had to start testing new inmates after seven days of quarantine and moving those who test negative for the virus in to the general population about 10 days after they first enter the facility.

“We’re having difficulty finding space to quarantine these people,” Walton said. “We only have so many beds available. We’re testing everybody now after seven days, that way, as we get the test results back and they’re negative, we’re moving them out at 10 (days).”

Walton said there have been two inmates at the facility who have tested positive for coronavirus, and both were in quarantine before and after the tests

“They came in off the street, they were in quarantine and after seven days we tested them and they had the virus,” Walton said. “But they never left quarantine.”

In the 13-day period preceding Monday’s meeting, Walton said, the prison had 159 commitments, with 103 of those inmates remaining at the prison without being released before completing their quarantine stays.

“It just seemed like they dropped a bomb on us and everybody’s coming in,” Walton said of the influx. “We’re really, really going to have difficulties if this continues in being able to quarantine people.”

Even people who are brought into the prison only to be released after a day or two require an isolated quarantine cell, he noted.

“I’ve still got to put them in quarantine,” Walton said. “You definitely don’t want to put them in (general) population because if they have the virus, they’ll spread it to everybody else. Everybody that comes through the door goes into quarantine.”

Walton said the prison on Friday received the results from 21 coronavirus tests administered to inmates who had spent seven days in quarantine; all 21 test results were negative.

The warden said he has reached out to Westmoreland County District Court Administrator Amy DeMatt to make the court system aware of the prison’s difficulties in finding space to quarantine new inmates.

“We’ve been able to keep the courts safe, the magistrates safe, everyone, because we’re quarantining these people before anyone ever gets to see them. That’s not going to be the case if these numbers continue the way they are,” Walton said. “... Once we’re out of cells, we’re out of cells. We’ll have no choice but to not quarantine people.”

In other business, the prison board approved the following personnel moves:

  • Promoting Amy Huffer to records supervisor, effective retroactive to June 29;
  • Accepting the resignation of full-time correctional officer Joshua King, effective retroactive to July 23;
  • Hiring the following eight probationary part-time correctional officers, with a start date of Aug. 2: Kody Piper, Lisa Mock, Lucas Pokarczyk, Trevor Brough, DeShawn Bonner, Andrew Polakovsky, Sean McDonald and Hannah Shaffer.

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