Consent order could reshape mental health care in Allegheny County Jail

Public Source, 03/19/24: “Sweeping changes to correctional mental healthcare could soon be coming to Allegheny County.

A law firm and two legal aid nonprofits announced today they reached a settlement agreement with the county to “protect the constitutional rights of the individuals incarcerated” at the Allegheny County Jail. The county must make significant changes to improve the jail’s treatment of people with psychiatric disabilities — including reining in the use of force and meeting required staffing levels — according to the consent order, which was filed this morning in federal court in Pittsburgh.

The agreement could settle a class-action lawsuit filed in 2020, which claims the jail deprives people with mental health conditions of necessary care, and resorts to forceful tactics such as irritant spray, restraint chairs and solitary confinement. A plaintiff told PublicSource those tactics “deteriorated” his mental health and left him with lasting trauma.

“We endure desolate, horrible conditions at ACJ,” said Shaquille Howard, 30, who suffers from multiple mental health conditions and was held at the jail for about four years starting in 2017. He spent more than a year in solitary confinement, which caused “worsening depression and recurring suicidality,” according to the complaint.

Attorneys who filed the suit called the agreement a milestone in the quest to change the culture at the jail, which has been criticized by advocates and community members for its death rate, living conditions and quality of healthcare.

“My hope is that through this consent order … there starts to be a culture shift recognizing that it’s our community members who are behind bars,” said Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, deputy director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, which joined the Abolitionist Law Center and the firm Whiteford, Taylor & Preston in representing five named plaintiffs. “And they have basic human rights to be treated as people who need care, and not just individuals that the jail has to put up with.”

The agreement was informed by depositions, hundreds of thousands of documents provided by the county and on-site investigations conducted by experts. They include a California-based psychiatrist who called the jail’s mental health treatment “shockingly substandard,” and a retired prison warden from Nebraska who found the jail “failed to train all staff” in alternatives to use of force, among other findings in their expert witness reports.

Read the full story here.