Westmoreland County Prison officials are weighing options for safely introducing new inmates to the prison’s general population amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic if a surge of new commitments overwhelms the number of beds available for 14-day quarantine stays.
Prison warden John Walton said Monday following the monthly Westmoreland County Prison Board meeting that the Hempfield Township facility has a 45-bed quarantine area where new inmates are lodged for 14 days to be monitored for COVID-19 symptoms before being transferred to the general population. With that isolation wing approaching capacity, alternatives to the 14-day quarantine must be explored.
“For the month of June, commitments are going to be over 200,” Walton said. “One of the biggest things we’ve been concerned about, we’ve been quarantining people on that one unit and we’re getting pretty full. We’re looking at other alternatives if that unit becomes full.”
“Last month, the population was down around 417. We were at 442 this morning,” Walton added. “We can’t absorb another period like that where our population is increasing by 25 or 50 people. We’re just trying to be prepared so we can do some type of quarantine if we have to.”
Walton said the prison may need to reduce the length of the quarantine period and require a negative coronavirus test for new inmates before they’re sent to the general population.
Currently, Walton said, new inmates are moved to the general population following a 14-day quarantine without coronavirus testing as long as they haven’t shown COVID-19 symptoms.
All prison staff members and inmates are required to wear masks, and in-person visitation has been suspended since March. Staffers and new inmates are required to have a temperature screening before entering the prison.
There have been no cases of coronavirus at the prison to date, Walton noted.
Amid coronavirus restrictions, the prison has extended for another month its practice offering free video visits to inmates. The cost of providing each inmate a weekly 10-minute video visit will be covered using money from the prison’s Inmate Welfare Fund, Walton said.
Walton said the prison’s new K-9 officer, Kira, has arrived and is beginning training. The prison board last month approved the eventual retirement of prison K-9 officer Oz and the purchase of the new drug dog to serve as Oz’s replacement.
Oz has been in service at the prison for eight years and will remain on the job until after Kira finishes training and certification to provide some overlap in service.
Kira’s purchase and training costs were funded through the Westmoreland County District Attorney’s Office’s drug forfeiture fund, Walton noted.
Walton also noted prison chaplain Nick Borgfeldt recently raised funds to provide every inmate at the prison with a Father’s Day card and stamped envelope earlier this month.
In other business, the prison board approved the following personnel items:
- Terminating the employment of probationary correctional officer Zachary Sterling;
- Terminating the employment of Records Supervisor Joanne Harding. Harding was initially hired at the prison in 2014;
- Accepting the resignation of part-time correctional officer Johnny Ehn, effective June 11;
- Accepting the resignation of Sgt. Brandon Gelet, effective June 21;
- Accepting the resignation of correctional officer Lacey Wolfe, effective May 26;
- Accepting the resignation of correctional officer Sean Colligan, effective June 19;
- Accepting the retirement of correctional officer Robert Gettemy, effective July 2;
- Hiring Carri Fait to a vacant clerk typist position, effective June 8.