ALC, PILP and ACLU send letter to Allegheny County demanding COVID-19 testing and contact tracing after alarming reports and denied tests

November 24, 2020 

John Bacharach, Esq. 

Counsel for Defendants 

RE: Graham v. Allegheny County 

Dear Counsel, 

We are writing in regard to recent reports of COVID-19 symptoms experienced by persons incarcerated in the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ). The reports are especially concerning given the disclosure that 10 ACJ staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 and another 50 have been quarantined as close contacts of staff members who have tested positive.

We have received reports that since Friday, November 20, 2020, multiple women incarcerated on  4F and 4E have submitted sick call slips and asked correctional staff to contact medical staff  because they have been experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. There has been no response by ACJ despite the fact that at least one of the guards who tested positive was in direct physical contact  with women on 4F on the same day she was placed in quarantine. 

Because you have asked us to provide identifying information so that you can conduct your own  investigation into concerns relayed to us, we are providing details for the following individuals:

• [REDACTED] – On 4F, reports vomiting a couple of days ago, and currently has a  scratchy throat. Gastrointestinal issues, including nausea, are established symptoms of  COVID-19. 
• [REDACTED] – She reportedly has diarrhea, a possible symptom of COVID-19. She  was in a fist fight with [REDACTED] that was broken up by C/O [REDACTED] the  same day C/O [REDACTED] was placed on quarantine. Everyone’s masks were down  during the fight. 
• [REDACTED] – Also has diarrhea, a possible COVID-19 symptom. Was involved in the  fight with [REDACTED] that was broken up by C/O [REDACTED].  
• [REDACTED] – Also on 4F, has had headaches and a scratchy throat.  • [REDACTED] – Also reportedly has symptoms. We have also been informed that correctional officer [REDACTED] tested positive for COVID 19. [REDACTED] works on pod 4F. Officer [REDACTED] was believed to be infected at a  community event at which other staff were present. After these events, C/O [REDACTED] worked at ACJ for two days, during which time [REDACTED] had repeated contacts with ACJ staff and incarcerated people, until [REDACTED] was placed on quarantine on Nov. 20, 2020.  Prior to being placed on quarantine, Officer [REDACTED] broke up a fight between two women  on 4F. We have been told that those two women and their cellmates have been exhibiting  symptoms of the virus. Additionally, it has been reported that incarcerated workers who  distribute meal trays and hygiene products to the people who reside on the housing pod are  exhibiting symptoms of the virus. 

We are further troubled that ACJ has apparently not conducted any contact tracing of Officer’s  [REDACTED]’s interactions with the women incarcerated on level 4, as none of the incarcerated  women have been consulted, advised, or tested by medical staff. 

The jail’s Emergency Preparedness Plan, which must be followed pursuant to the Consent Order  in this matter, provides that testing is recommended in situations that “include, but are not  limited to, a new onset of symptoms (99.0 degrees Fahrenheit or above, respiratory symptoms,  shortness of breath, sore throat, loss of taste/smell).” Emergency Preparedness Plan, p. 10 (emphasis added). The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recognizes headache, diarrhea,  nausea, and sore throat – symptoms reportedly experienced by the women named in this letter – as symptoms of COVID-19.

Additionally, it is critical to note that the availability of testing and the recommendations for  correctional facilities have evolved since the consent order was issued in this case. The  Emergency Preparedness Plan also notes that “As treatment, testing, or vaccinations become  available, a coordinated plan will be developed and executed to reduce further spread of illness.”  Emergency Preparedness Plan, p. 4. As noted in the Philadelphia Inquirer, experts at the John Hopkins Center for Health Security’s National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice have urged “widespread and continuous” testing of incarcerated people and staff. This  recommendation was echoed by the CDC in August 2020 when it recommended mass testing in  correctional facilities based on extant research showing such testing to be a critical measure for  protecting public health, limiting transmission of the virus, and mitigating risk. 

We are requesting that the jail test the above-named individuals pursuant to the consent order in  this case. Given the extraordinary rates of COVID-19 in the community at the moment, prudence  and reason also dictate testing everybody on 4F, as well as all other pods where staff who tested positive interacted directly with incarcerated people. We also want to emphasize that decisions  regarding whether to test an individual for COVID-19 are medical decisions and must be made by a trained medical professional. Testing decisions, including decisions not to test, must be documented, and include notes on interviews with incarcerated people and their reported  symptoms. 

Additionally, we are requesting that contact tracing be performed in regard to all incarcerated  people who have been in proximity to staff who have tested positive or are on quarantine. 

Please respond within 24 hours regarding these requests. We are in the midst of the worst public  health crisis of our lifetimes, and time is of the essence.

Respectfully submitted, 

/s/ Sara J. Rose 

Sara J. Rose, Esq. 

PA ID No.: 204936 

/s/ Witold J. Walczak 

Witold J. Walczak, Esq. 

PA ID No.: 62976 

American Civil Liberties Union of  Pennsylvania 

PO Box 23058 

Pittsburgh, PA 15222 

T: (412) 681-7864 (tel.) 

F: (412) 681-8707 

srose@aclupa.org  

vwalczak@aclupa.org  

/s/ Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz 

Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, Esq. 

PA ID No. 312631 

Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project

100 Fifth Ave, Ste. 900 

Pittsburgh, Pa 15222 

T: (412) 434-6175 

amorgan-kurtz@pailp.org  

Attorneys for Petitioners/Plaintiffs 

/s/ Bret Grote 

Bret D. Grote, Esq. 

PA ID No. 317273 

/s/ Jaclyn Kurin 

Jaclyn Kurin, Esq. 

D.C. Bar ID No. 1600719 

/s/ Swain Uber 

Swain Uber, Esq. 

Of Counsel 

PA I.D. No. 323477 

Abolitionist Law Center 

P.O. Box 8654 

Pittsburgh, PA 15221 

T: (412) 654-9070 

bretgrote@abolitionistlawcenter.org  qcozzens@alcenter.org

Prisoners’ Rights Advocates File Class Action Lawsuit Against Allegheny County Over Failed Mental Health Care System at ACJ.

September 15, 2020
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT:
William Lukas, Abolitionist Law Center, wjlukas@alcenter.org
Rebecca Susman, PA Institutional Law Project, rsusman@pailp.org

PITTSBURGH – The Abolitionist Law Center (ALC), Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project (PILP), and Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP filed a class action lawsuit today 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 asserts that although ACJ houses hundreds of people with psychiatric disabilities, including anxiety, depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, ACJ is lacking a functioning mental health care system.   Every aspect of a comprehensive system for mental health care, from intake screening, to medication management, provision of counseling and therapy, suicide prevention, and training is either non-existent or wholly deficient at ACJ.  

“We recognize there are many employees at ACJ who try their best to provide care, yet face an impossible task due to inadequate systems, resources and direction,” said Keith Whitson, Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP.  “This lawsuit focuses primarily on the illegal systemic failures that make treatment nearly nonexistent, and the frequent imposition of punishment in place of treatment.”

The complaint contends that instead of ensuring proper staff training and adequate mental health staffing levels, or creating policies that provide adequate care, Warden Orlando Harper and Deputy Warden Laura Williams oversee a system that responds to people in mental health crisis with brutal levels of force and solitary confinement. People with psychiatric disabilities are tased, sprayed with OC, beaten, and placed in restraint chairs for several hours for minor infractions and for simply requesting mental health care. They are commonly placed in solitary confinement for weeks and months on end, often without having a hearing, in conditions universally acknowledged by correctional experts, courts and the United Nations as torture.

“An extensive investigation of the conditions at ACJ, including hundreds of interviews of those currently and formerly incarcerated at ACJ as well as former employees, and review of medical records, have reinforced what we already knew–the system of mental health care at ACJ is appallingly and unconstitutionally inadequate,” said Jaclyn Kurin, staff attorney for the Abolitionist Law Center.

As a result of the systemic lack of mental health care and discrimination against people with psychiatric disabilities, the jail has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation. These dehumanizing conditions leave a lasting impact on communities outside of the jail, primarily Black communities. While Black people only make up 13.4% of the population of Allegheny County, they constitute a striking 61% of those held at ACJ. Most people invariably leave ACJ worse off than they enter it, making it more difficult to re-integrate into their communities and further fueling the cycles of incarceration, poverty, and trauma.

“Allegheny County is failing its most vulnerable communities by incarcerating people with psychiatric disabilities and then refusing to uphold its moral and constitutional obligation to provide treatment,” stated Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, Managing Attorney at the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project.  “Without a complete overhaul of the practices at ACJ, people will continue to suffer long lasting trauma and grievous harm.”

The class action lawsuit seeks to represent all people with psychiatric disabilities who are currently, or will in the future, be held at the Allegheny County Jail. 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 Jacklyn Kurin of the Abolitionist Law Center; Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project; and Keith Whitson of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP.

A copy of the complaint is available here:

Media Release: Emergency Petition Filed For Young Woman Placed In Solitary Confinement During Her Birthday

On Monday the Abolitionist Law Center along with the law office of Timothy P. O’Brien and attorney Jules Lobel, filed an emergency petition against the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania to remove a young woman from solitary confinement housing after spending more than 70 days – including her birthday – in the restrictive housing unit at ACJ since February, resulting in severe mental health crises and three suicide attempts.

The ALC and co-counsel are representing Kimberly Andrews, a 20-year-old woman awaiting disposition on misdemeanor cases who has been in solitary confinement off and on since February of 2019, despite having known mental health issues. While at the ACJ, Ms. Andrews has tried to self-harm at least three times due to the decompensation associated with the placement in solitary confinement and harsh prison conditions within the restrictive housing unit. Ms. Andrews suffers from known mental health disorders including bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorder, and oppositional defiance disorder. Instead of receiving access to treatment and waiting for the adjudications of her case, Ms. Andrews has undergone repeated dehumanizing encounters with abusive ACJ staff.

For instance, on one occasion Ms. Andrews spent at least 8 consecutive hours in the restraint chair, strapped in so tight that it caused bruising around her wrists and shoulder areas. She was again deprived food, water, bathroom breaks, or any ability to move her limbs. Staff returned at one point to loosen the strap on her right wrist, as it was cutting into her flesh. Ms. Andrews asked for her inhaler, but her request was denied; no other medical checks were conducted.

 

The treatment of Ms. Andrews highlights the inability of the ACJ to create policies and procedures to ensure the safety and security of those incarcerated with medically diagnosed disorders. Ms. Andrews has been able to successfully interact in general population and was able to have a job when briefly removed from solitary confinement. Despite previous attempts to resolve this situation, Ms. Andrews remains in solitary confinement where she continues to struggle to acclimate based on her health history and continues to self-harm as a result.

 

She has been kept in solitary confinement for over 70 days by Defendants at the jail, although she has not been either charged with or convicted of any violent conduct by officials at the jail. She has a history of mental illness, which is greatly exacerbated by her placement and retention in isolation. She has attempted suicide three times since being placed in solitary confinement.

The petition is asking the court to grant Ms. Andrews as temporary restraining order which would prevent her from being placed in solitary confinement as well as prevent specific ACJ staff from contacting her due to their denial of medical treatment and triggering conduct. The ACJ spent more than $200,000 on bedding, replacing sheets with anti-suicide blankets due to the number of suicide and suicide attempts in the facility.

 

Andrews v. Harper – Complaint-As Filed

Brief in Support of TRO-as Filed

Motion for TRO-as Filed

Order to Show Cause-as Filed

Lawsuit Filed Challenging County Jail’s Practice of Placing Pregnant Women in Solitary Confinement

PITTSBURGH (December 19) – The ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Abolitionist Law Center (ALC), the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project (PILP), and Reed Smith LLP joined forces today in filing claims in federal court challenging the inhumane way officials treat pregnant women held at the Allegheny County Jail. The lawsuit alleges that jail officials routinely place pregnant women in solitary confinement for extended periods of time without justification, knowing full well that this practice can harm the health of the women and their pregnancies.

The lawsuit also seeks to end other restrictions and conditions placed on these women that are dangerous and extremely shortsighted. Pregnant inmates are regularly deprived of nutritional food; needed medications; lack of heat; and even the ability to shower or exercise.

“The conditions of solitary confinement and inadequate nutrition faced by pregnant women at ACJ are causing severe psychological anguish, constant hunger, and putting them and their pregnancies at risk of permanent harm,” said Bret Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center. “The Constitution does not permit this.”

Four of the five named plaintiffs in the lawsuit have spent time ranging from six to 22 days in solitary confinement while pregnant. Elizabeth Seitz, the lead plaintiff in the case, was placed in solitary confinement for ten days in November when she was seven months pregnant. She spent 24 hours per day in her cell and was permitted to leave her cell to shower only twice in ten days. Ms. Seitz had previously spent 21 days in solitary confinement in October.

“Despite numerous requests for help, ACJ has ignored its duty to safeguard the pregnant women in its care,” said Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, staff attorney at the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. “This blatant disregard for correctional standards cannot be tolerated.”

Due to the serious risk of mental and physical harm, the U.S. Department of Justice opposes the use of solitary confinement for pregnant women except in very rare situations. Yet Allegheny County regularly places pregnant women in solitary confinement for minor, non-violent rule violations. For example, one of the plaintiffs, Ms. Hendricks, was placed in solitary confinement for nine days for violating rules by having a library book in her possession.

“It is widely recognized that placing pregnant women in solitary confinement is extremely dangerous – for both mother and child,” said David Fawcett, an attorney at Reed Smith who is representing the plaintiffs pro bono.  “The routine and thoughtless use of this practice is a real black mark on our county and must end now.”

Many other groups, like the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, have documented the unhealthy effects of solitary confinement for pregnant women. According to the NCCHC, “[i]nternational standards established by the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders state that pregnant women should never be placed in solitary confinement as they are especially susceptible to its harmful psychological effects.”

“The use of solitary confinement to discipline pregnant women for any offense, much less a minor, non-violent offense, is contrary to both national and international standards,” said Reggie Shuford, ACLU-PA executive director. “Pregnant women in Allegheny County should not be subject to this cruel and inhumane practice.”

The case is Seitz v. Allegheny County, and the plaintiffs are represented by Sara Rose of the ACLU-PA, Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center, Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, and David Fawcett of the law firm Reed Smith LLP.

More about the case, including a copy of the complaint, is available at: www.aclupa.org/seitz

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MEDIA RELEASE: Lawsuit Filed Against Corizon and Allegheny County Jail for Starving 28-year-old, Causing Heart Attack

October 12, 2016: A lawsuit filed in the Western District of Pennsylvania federal court today describes the harrowing story of plaintiff Christopher Wallace, who was twice hospitalized because medical staff employed by Corizon at the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) failed to provide him with medically prescribed tube feedings, causing his starvation and an eventual heart attack that nearly ended his life. Mr. Wallace has sued medical staff who were in charge of his care at ACJ, as well as Warden Harper, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, and Corizon, each of which turned a blind eye to policies and practices that they knew were leading to the systematic failure to provide medical care to inmates in violation of the United States Constitution.

Read the Complaint Wallace v. Fitzgerald, et al.

As of 2014 Allegheny County had been on notice that their private health care provider, Corizon, was not providing adequate care to the prisoners at the Allegheny County Jail. Rather than intervene, the County allowed Corizon to continue providing services at the Allegheny County Jail until their contract with the County expired. Corizon repeatedly engaged in conduct designed to save the County money at the expense of the health, wellbeing, and constitutional rights of inmates.

Plaintiff Christopher Wallace was an unfortunate victim of Corizon’s for-profit healthcare scheme. Mr. Wallace was emaciated when he entered the care of Allegheny County. The County immediately recognized that he was in need of serious care as this 6’4” man weighed a mere 77 pounds upon entry to the County Jail. After a short stay at UPMC Mercy, Mr. Wallace was returned to the care of the County.

Despite their assurances that they could care for Mr. Wallace, the County and their private contractor, Corizon, allowed him to starve. Mr. Wallace was not provided with the most basic form of life sustaining care, food and water.

On two separate occasions Mr. Wallace was forced to return to UPMC because the individuals in charge of his well-being either were not willing, or did not have the resources to provide him food and water via medically prescribed tube feedings.

The records that exist show that Mr. Wallace was never once provided his prescribed five daily feedings over a period of nearly 30 days. According to the records provided by Corizon, some days Mr. Wallace was not fed at all.

The cruel and outrageous conduct of the County and Corizon resulted in a 28-year-old man having a heart attack and nearly starving to death. If it wasn’t for the compassion of the staff at UPMC, Mr. Wallace likely would have died.

Mr. Wallace is represented by the Abolitionist Law Center and Louis J. Kroeck of the firm Anstandig & McDyer.

***

Contact:

Bret Grote       bretgrote@abolitionistlawcenter.org                412-654-9070