Amid COVID and staff shortages, work-release no longer an option for Lehigh Valley inmates

Written by on January 19, 2022

Amid COVID and staff shortages, work-release no longer an option for Lehigh Valley inmates

By Tyler Pratt
January 19, 2022

EASTON, Pa. – Northampton County Prison recently shuttered its work-release program, citing rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in the community. Now neither of the men’s correctional facilities in the Lehigh Valley offers a work option for the incarcerated.

Work-release programs allow some incarcerated individuals to stay employed at their old jobs or find new ones while serving their time. 

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Sixty inmates had been enrolled in the Northampton County work-release program and are now back in the jail full-time, according to a county spokesperson. 

“In a time of COVID, they are on a 22-, 23-hour lockdown,” said Joseph Welsh, executive director of the Lehigh Valley Justice Institute, which works to reimagine criminal justice in the area.

Welsh said work-release programs are critical to helping people return to society. 

“Employment is just a key to that,” Welsh said. “In fact, the two main pillars of reentry really are employment and housing.” 

Welsh said work-release options are part of the Northampton County Department of Corrections mission, which provides opportunities to participate in programs “intended to reduce the likelihood of re-incarceration.” 

“There is some programming that is being carried on remotely, there are some [electronic] tablets being provided to inmates, but it’s not the same,’ Welsh said. 

Northampton County Director of Corrections James Kostura wasn’t available to comment for this story, but a news release from his office noted the work-release program will be suspended for two months or more, depending on community transmission rates of COVID-19. 

Deputy Director of Administration Becky Bradley said county officials have asked for help from, “the Courts, District Attorney’s Office, Public Defenders Office and Pre-Trial and Probation Departments to take action to reduce the inmate population during the ongoing surge of cases.”

Bradley told WLVR the county doesn’t currently have an update on where conversations with those agencies stand.

In Lehigh County, the jail’s work-release program was closed more than a year ago.  Officials have blamed staffing shortages. 

Corrections Director Janine Donate floated a new option earlier this month – releasing some inmates, and digitally tracking them with bracelets.

“This is a way to have inmates be able to establish those ties in the community, get out into the community and participate in a work-release program,” Donate said.

Those inmates would also get to live at home, not at the jail. But the initiative will need to be cleared by the Lehigh County Board of Commissioners; the timeline for Donate’s proposal is unclear. 

For now amid the COVID case surge, those who are incarcerated – and eligible for reentry programs — will have to wait to go back to work. 

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