After 20-Month Investigation, Lawyers Uncover Compelling Evidence Concerning Treatment of Incarcerated People with Mental Illness at Allegheny County Jail


Lawyers from the Abolitionist Law Center (ALC), Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project (PILP), and Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP have filed a motion in federal court seeking authorization to pursue class action relief for all incarcerated people at the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) requiring mental health care now and in the future.

The motion contains compelling evidence obtained during an exhaustive 20-month period of discovery that Allegheny County has been violating the rights of incarcerated people with psychiatric disabilities by failing to provide them with proper treatment and subjecting them to prolonged solitary confinement and routine excessive force.

“ACJ is failing to provide any meaningful mental health care to those in its custody, and in many cases is actually punishing individuals for seeking help,” said Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. “We have seen evidence that people incarcerated at ACJ have suffered as the staff at best turned a blind eye and at other times assaulted individuals for manifestations of their mental illness. Their conditions have worsened and ACJ’s already high suicide completion and attempt rates have continued to increase. It’s absolutely intolerable and inhumane.”

Through this Motion, Plaintiffs seek to certify a class of individuals defined as:

All individuals currently or in the future incarcerated at Allegheny County Jail and who have, or will in the future have, a serious mental health diagnosis, disorder or disability as recognized in the DSM-V, including but not limited to depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or borderline personality disorder.

The brief in support of the motion provides extensive evidence that ACJ fails to meet state and national standards for the provision of mental healthcare in virtually every aspect- grossly insufficient mental health staffing; minimal or non-existent training; ineffective intake procedures that fail to identify patient need; insufficient treatment plans; lack of counseling or therapy; and no quality improvement program to assess their own policies and practices. Instead of mental health care, ACJ uses force at rates that are far and away the highest in the entire Commonwealth. According to County data provided by Defendants, ACJ had 585 incidents involving use of force in 2020 and 720 such incidents in 2019.  The next highest county in Pennsylvania each of those years had fewer than half that number of incidents

“This comprehensive investigation of the conditions at ACJ has reinforced what we already knew–the staff at ACJ is woefully unprepared and the system of mental health care at ACJ is appallingly and unconstitutionally inadequate,” said Jaclyn Kurin, staff attorney for the Abolitionist Law Center.

If granted, plaintiffs will be able to seek a court order providing remedies for unlawful policies and practices on behalf of all those with mental health conditions at ACJ.

Howard v. Williams is a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of people with psychiatric disabilities incarcerated in Allegheny County Jail (ACJ). The lawsuit alleges severe and systemic constitutional violations, as well as violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, for the jail’s failure to provide adequate mental health care and its discriminatory and brutal treatment of people with psychiatric disabilities.

The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania and names Laura Williams, Orlando Harper, Michael Barfield, and Allegheny County as defendants. The plaintiffs are represented by Bret Grote, Quinn Cozzens, Swain Uber, and Jaclyn Kurin of the Abolitionist Law Center; Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz and Richardo Brown-Whitt of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project; and Keith Whitson of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP.

Learn more about Howard v. Williams by visiting ALC’s case page and read the full brief here.