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Story by Joseph Darius Jaafari from Spotlight PA
HARRISBURG – The State Department of Corrections has doubled down on its policy of not always informing the families of inmates sick or killed by the coronavirus, saying it is the responsibility of inmates to ensure their emergency contacts are complete and precise.
Last month, a report from Spotlight PA found that while the department has the power to decide when to release medical information, some family members of those in prison said they were kept in the dark because their loved ones fell ill and in some cases died.
Nonprofits and lawyers point to a waiver issued by the federal government in March that gave hospitals discretion to disclose this information to family and friends during a public health emergency. But the department said the waiver does not apply to prisons.
In a publish on its website this month, the department said it would only release information to one person listed as an emergency contact, whether that person is a family member or a “next of kin”, which is the typical process used by authorities to inform a family of a death.
“So when you see reports or accounts that an inmate’s family has not been informed of an illness or death, that might be the rational explanation,” the department wrote, adding that inmates can complete additional documents to authorize the release of their information. to a second person.
For many inmates, however, their emergency contact details are as old as when they were received – the day they were jailed. And families and prison rights groups said the department was not doing enough to educate inmates about the importance of updating their information.
“If the DOC is looking to follow the procedures it just posted on its website regarding people notified in a medical emergency, then it should proactively communicate this information to every incarcerated person in its care,” so people can plan ahead accordingly, ”said Su Ming Yeh, executive director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project.
Briana Hafiz, whose stepfather Abdul Rashid Hafiz is incarcerated at SCI-Dallas, said she and her family had been trying to obtain information on Abdul’s status since the start of the year, date to which they heard from his latest news. .
They only learned that he may have had a stroke from other inmates. When she approached the department, prison officials told her that she was not on the emergency contact list and that they would not release any information to her.
“We haven’t had any details on his level of cognition, or if he even walks,” Briana Hafiz said. “The only reason we knew about the stroke was because a family friend also has a father who is being held in prison.”
Abdul Hafiz’s partner, who declined to be named, said she was on her emergency contact list when she was first detained over 30 years ago. But the department said she is not the contact now and will not tell the family who are listed, if any.
Asked about the situation, a DOC spokeswoman Maria Bivens said: “It would appear that in this case the only emergency contact person for the detainee did not pass any information on to others – we cannot control it. “
Bivens said detainees have the ability to update their medical forms whenever they want, and the department will not disclose medical information otherwise, claiming it would violate a federal medical confidentiality law, the law on medical confidentiality. portability and liability in health insurance.
“The only person the DOC can release information about an inmate to is the person the inmate has identified,” the department posted on its website. “This can cause problems when, for example, the inmate’s girlfriend is the person to contact in an emergency. She alone would be notified. The inmate’s mother, brother or uncle would not. It depends on who the detainee provided to DOC officials. “
In March, the US Department of Health and Human Services released a memo allowing medical staff to release basic information – location, patient status, and treatment – in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The same guidelines were issued during Storm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina.
While some lawyers and nonprofit groups believe the guidelines give the department leeway to be more flexible, others say it is overkill to group prisons with hospitals, even if they have medical facilities.
Families of detainees and prisoner advocates have said not enough is being done to educate inmates of the need to update forms in case they contract the coronavirus. Since March, at least 8,000 inmates out of a total population of 40,000 have contracted COVID-19, with 85 deaths on Friday.
These groups also wonder why the department can’t help inmates update medical information, the same way it has handled federal stimulus checks. In October, the department was praised for passing papers to nearly 40,000 prisoners to register for their money.
“If the DOC has shown that they can go from cell to cell and become important [stimulus] documentation completed, they should be commended for it, ”said Claire Shubik-Richards, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, the state’s unofficial ombudsman for prisoners and their families. “This skill level means they could go cell-to-cell and get people thinking about who they want to be notified about, and also offer the list of opportunities more than one name.”
Even though detainees end up needing hospital care, families still face a brick wall. This is because hospitals, which typically notify the next of kin or a power of attorney, do not release any information about inmates unless the correctional service gives them permission.
Briana Hafiz said she called Wilkes-Barre General, owned by Commonwealth Health, which has at least four hospitals that treat inmates. The hospital is the closest place to SCI-Dallas, and she figured her stepfather would be there.
“They are still not releasing information anyway,” she said. “If you call and ask for information, they don’t even tell you if he’s there.”
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