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Pennsylvania Governor Wolf Issues Executive Order to Allow Early Release for Vulnerable People in State Corrections

(New York, USA) – Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf issued an order today to release vulnerable inmates from state prisons in response to the growing threat of COVID-19 among those who are incarcerated.

Approximately 1,500 to 1,800 people will be eligible for release under the temporary reprieve program. There are a number of individuals who will be ineligible and some will be required to return to prison after the crisis.

“Governor Wolf’s decision to release vulnerable people is a reasoned and humane step towards saving lives,” said Daliah Heller, Director of Drug Use Initiatives at Vital Strategies. “We hope and expect that Pennsylvania will continue to implement critical decarceration measures to avert a devastating and preventable prison pandemic. This should happen in partnership with health and community-based organizations working to sustain essential social support services, including access to harm reduction supplies, medications for opioid use disorder, and measures to reduce reincarceration.” 

Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel described that reentry planning will include connecting inmates to community-based treatment programs, as well as release transportation support. Vital Strategies has been working with several emergency health providers and community harm reduction organizations in Pennsylvania to increase their capacity to meet service needs and reduce overdose deaths, including for people recently released from incarceration.

Public health experts and criminal justice advocates across the U.S. are calling on state and local leaders to adopt measures to reduce incarceration and prevent COVID-19 within the high-risk correctional setting.

Correctional departments should also follow guidance to reduce the risk of COVID-19 in their facilities, including from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and prioritize strategies that protect both the rights and health of those who remain incarcerated.

Recent data has shown disturbing disparities in illness and death from COVID-19 among African Americans due to systemic racism, including unequal access to health care.  There are also striking disparities in African Americans behind bars in Pennsylvania and nationally. A prison pandemic in Pennsylvania’s correctional institutions would exacerbate the racial disparities that are emerging as part of the COVID-19 crisis.

“States must act swiftly and aggressively while there is still an opportunity to contain the spread of COVID-19 and effectively manage reentry,” said Heller. “More states should follow Pennsylvania’s lead to decarcerate the most vulnerable. It will save lives and can be done safely and responsibly.”

About Vital Strategies

Vital Strategies is a global health organization that believes every person should be protected by a strong public health system. We work with governments and civil society in 73 countries to design and implement evidence-based strategies that tackle their most pressing public health problems. Our goal is to see governments adopt promising interventions at scale as rapidly as possible.

To find out more, please visit or Twitter @VitalStrat.

About the Overdose Prevention Program

In November 2018, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced a $50 million investment to address the country’s overdose crisis. The initiative—a first-of-its-kind partnership between Vital Strategies, Pew Charitable Trusts, CDC Foundation, and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health—is helping up to 10 states implement solutions over three years to strengthen and scale up evidence-based, data-driven interventions to reduce risks of overdose and save lives.

To find out more, please visit