Pittsburgh, Pa. – Six currently detained individuals filed a class action lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania against three Allegheny County judges; Administrative Judge Jill Rangos and Court of Common Pleas Judges Anthony Mariani, and Kelly Bigley, as well as Jail Warden Orlando Harper and Director of Probation Frank Scherer and other probation department officials, alleging that Allegheny County’s pervasive use of probation detainers violates their state and federal constitutional rights. Represented by counsel from Civil Rights Corps and Abolitionist Law Center, the plaintiffs seeks a declaration that Defendants’ policies and practices violate their rights to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment, through unlawfully jailing people arrested for probation violations for prolonged periods without an adequate assessment or determination that such detention is necessary. The plaintiffs also seek injunctive relief to change the practices that result in rampant illegal incarceration, and they will be moving for a preliminary injunction to immediately halt the unconstitutional practices. Finally, they seek money damages for every day of illegal detention they have suffered.
The lawsuit challenges the systemic use of probation detainers, the single largest driver of incarceration at the Allegheny County Jail. A probation detainer prohibits an individual’s release from jail until they have a hearing to determine whether they violated their probation. On any given day, about one third of the jail population (upwards of 600 people) has a probation detainer lodged against them. Approximately 16% of them are accused only of a technical violation of probation, such as failing to update their address or to meet with their probation officer. Most of the people with new charges, the other reason for alleged violations, are theoretically able to get out of jail on the new charges on either monetary or non-monetary bail. But because of the probation detainer, they’re stuck in jail. The suit challenges the constitutionality of the perfunctory proceedings at which decisions regarding detainers are made. The suit further challenges Judges Mariani and Bigley’s blanket administrative “no-lift” policy, automatically requiring all people they supervise who are arrested for an alleged probation violation to remain in jail, no matter the circumstances of the probation violation. “Local officials’ detainer practices are particularly jarring in light of the ongoing crisis at the Allegheny County Jail; at least six people incarcerated at the jail have died this year alone, 17 since the onset of the pandemic. Yet the jail continues to be senselessly overpopulated because of the rampant and illegal use of probation detainers,” said Sumayya Saleh, Senior Attorney, Civil Rights Corps.
Gerald Thomas is one of the individuals who died in the jail this past year. He was accused of new charges, which were all ultimately withdrawn. Mr. Thomas was held on a probation detainer for almost a year. Shortly before Mr. Thomas’s death, Judge Mariani refused to lift his detainer despite the withdrawn charges. “Mr. Thomas’s death is the worst possible outcome of these dangerous policies, but it is not an unpredictable one,” said Dolly Prabhu, Staff Attorney at the Abolitionist Law Center. “To not put an end to these practices is to continue to put hundreds of incarcerated people in Allegheny County at risk everyday.”
Dion Horton is the lead named plaintiff in the case. He’s been in jail since February 2022 for allegedly violating probation after being accused of new offenses. A judicial officer in a separate proceeding ordered that he could be released from jail on those charges. Despite this, a probation detainer was lodged against him, with no separate determination that his incarceration is necessary. Nearly eight months have passed, and there is no end in sight–he has no idea when he will have a hearing on the alleged probation violation. “I thought that we were supposed to be innocent until proven guilty,” said Mr. Horton. “But with probation detainers, it’s like I’m guilty before I’m ever tried. That doesn’t seem fair to me.”
Civil Rights Corpsis a non-profit organization dedicated to challenging systemic injustice in the American legal system through innovative civil rights litigation. CRC works with individuals accused and convicted of crimes, their families and communities, people currently or formerly incarcerated, activists, organizers, judges, and government officials to challenge mass human caging and to create a legal system that promotes equality and human freedom.
The Abolitionist Law Center is a public interest law firm inspired by the struggle of political and politicized prisoners, and organized for the purpose of abolishing class and race based mass incarceration in the United States. Abolitionist Law Center litigates on behalf of people whose human rights have been violated in prison, educates the general public about the evils of mass incarceration, and works to develop a mass movement against the American punishment system by building alliances and nurturing solidarity across social divisions.
Cheryl Bonacci Civil Rights Corps firstname.lastname@example.org
Dolly Prabhu Abolitionist Law Center email@example.com
It’s been a HUGE three months at ALC. We’ve come hard at Death By Incarceration, solitary confinement, abusive and discriminatory judges and court practices, and the torturous conditions inside Pennsylvania’s largest county jails. We’ve collaborated and built power with individuals and groups directly impacted by mass incarceration and other forms of state violence in communities around the state. And our movement, clients, work, and staff members have made media headlines, been part of high profile events, and garnered impressive recognition.
This 48-page report authored by ALC Staff Attorney Dolly Prabhu connects the March 2022 death of 26-year-old Gerald Thomas in Allegheny County Jail to the racialized violence of other Allegheny County institutions and state actors. The report examines how practices of policing and punishment such as traffic stops, pretrial detention, probation detainers, and solitary confinement, support the maintenance of local “death-making institutions,” a term coined by abolitionist Mariame Kaba. It also highlights the fact that Thomas died in the jail 17 days after Judge Mariani chose to continue his incarceration, despite all of the charges against Thomas being dropped.
The report’s publication coincided with ALC’s Court Watch program’s filing against Judge Mariani. From March 2021 to March 2022, Prabhu and Court Watch volunteers observed his court proceedings and recorded countless instances of Judge Mariani verbally abusing defendants, attorneys, and his own staff, while also demonstrating a lack of understanding of relevant legal standards, and making racist comments about Black defendants.
Winning “Compassionate” Release from Decades of Confinement
In September, ALC clients Frank Lowery and Vernon Bess were released from prison after 45 and 47 years of incarceration, respectively. These two men were the latest of the seven people serving excessively long sentences for whom ALC’s legal team has won release since the summer of 2021. Most of them had more than 30 years behind bars (one had been inside for 51!), and several spent decades of their imprisonment in solitary confinement. Five of these individuals were freed by so-called “compassionate release,” for which they qualified because of severe incapacitation from terminal medical conditions.
Compassionate release cases are labor-intensive and extremely urgent; one qualification for applicants is that they must have a documented medical prognosis of having less than a year to live. Along with our exploding caseload, we’re supervising the Compassionate Release Pro Bono Project, a newly formed collaboration at the University of Pennsylvania Law School working to increase the number of people who apply for and ultimately are granted “compassionate” release.
In August, ALC’s 501(c)(4) arm Straight Ahead, produced a deeply moving video featuring Bradford Gamble, one of our recent clients who was forced to make the agonizing choice of foregoing treatment in prison for late stage cancer, in order to meet eligibility guidelines for consideration for release.
Take a watch as Mr. Gamble, who passed away soon after the video was made, and ALC staff attorney Rupalee Rashatwar talk about why no one should ever face such a decision, and no one should die behind bars.
Together We’ll End Death by Incarceration!
In mid-September, ALC, Straight Ahead, formations of our movement family members led by formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones, and a coalition of partner organizations from around the country made huge strides in our shared campaign to end Death by Incarceration. (Death by Incarceration is the inhumane sentencing of a person to life without the possibility of parole.) Over the course of just one week we took the fight to the United Nations, a PASuperior Courtroom in Pittsburgh, and the PA state capitol in Harrisburg.
On September 15th (as part of a group that included the Center for Constitutional Rights, the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Drexel University Community Lawyering Clinic, the Drop LWOP Coalition, Release Aging People in Prisons, and others), ALC made national headlines when we submitted a 31-page letter to the United Nations stating that the United States is committing torture and other gross human rights violations by condemning people to Death by Incarceration.
The coalition is urging the U.N. Special Rapporteurs to call for the nationwide abolition of life imprisonment, which is more prevalent in the U.S. than in any other country in the world. Our initiative received high profile press coverage in The Nation, The Guardian, Truthout, LA Progressive, and other outlets.
On September 20th, ALC’s legal team argued persuasively in the Pennsylvania Superior Court in Pittsburgh that life without parole sentences for felony murder is cruel punishment that is prohibited by the Pennsylvania state and federal constitutions. In Commonwealth v. Derek Lee, ALC’s client Mr. Lee is challenging the lifetime ban on parole for those convicted of felony murder (i.e. people who did not take a life or intend to take a life). A win in this case would be a huge, precedent-setting victory not just for Mr. Lee, but for the approximately 1100 other people who are currently languishing under DBI sentences for felony murder in PA.
The legal team’s compelling argument, which appeared to be received favorably by the judges, highlighted the fact that while only 11 percent of Pennsylvania’s population is Black, about 70 percent of people serving Death By Incarceration sentences for felony murder in the state are Black. Read more details in excellent press coverage here and here
Also on September 20th, formerly incarcerated leaders including “juvenile lifers” who served decades of DBI sentences before winning release, hundreds of our movement family members from across the state, elected officials, and staff from ALC and Straight Ahead, joined forces at a rally organized by our comrades from CADBI (Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration), on the steps of the PA capitol in Harrisburg.
With powerful personal testimony, participants called on the Pennsylvania General Assembly to pass legislation to end Death By Incarceration and instead embrace policies that heal communities. In the face of a new wave of gun violence and homicide, community members impacted both by violence and mass incarceration urged legislators to divest from mass incarceration, and address violence with real solutions such as community-based violence prevention efforts, fully funding schools and social services, and providing accessible mental health and addiction treatment.
Banning Solitary & Other Extreme Conditions of Confinement
ALC has worked toward the abolition of solitary confinement since our first case in 2013, when we led the successful legal battle to release Russell Maroon Shoatz from 22 years of that torture. Our executive director Robert Saleem Holbrook, and ALC community organizer John Thompson, each spent ten years or more in solitary during their decades of incarceration and regularly speak out against the inhumane practice in high profile public events and in the press.
In Philadelphia we’re embedded in the push for the City Council to establish a jail oversight board that would address the county jails’ egregious use of solitary, as well as the many other highly abusive and harmful control measures occuring in Philadelphia jails.
As part of our overall campaign to raise awareness and public support for ending solitary, in August ALC and Straight Ahead co-sponsored the End of Isolation Tour’s performance at Eastern Penitentiary of “The Box.” This immersive production by playwright Sarah Shour (who spent 410 days in solitary confinement in an Iranian prison where she was physically and mentally tortured, and suffered depression and anxiety) “brings to light the fallacies of solitary confinement.”
Also earlier this summer,ALC and Straight Ahead joined forces with partner groups PA Stands Up, Lehigh Valley Stands Up, and NEPA Stands Up, to end solitary confinement in the jails in Lehigh and Lackawanna Counties by placing voter referendums on the November 2022 ballot. This effort is modeled after the successful referendum that ended solitary in Allegheny County Jail in 2021 – to our knowledge, the first such voter-led effort in the nation.
Though we fell short of the signatures needed to get the question on the ballot in Lehigh County, in Lackawanna County, our coalition met the threshold by garnering more than 13,000 signatures! When officials illegally tried to thwart our effort by refusing to put the question on the ballot in mid-September, ALC staff attorney Jaclyn Kurin sued the election board, and our Campaigns Manager John Rowland helped local activists raise a ruckus with a focused, public pressure campaign that brought visibility and a media spotlight to the issue.
This is another extremely pressing fight for ALC’s legal and organizing teams, who are racing against the deadline to ensure that the will of the people of Lackawanna County is honored as they demand a say in deciding whether or not the jail will continue to torture people with solitary confinement.
Free Our Youth!
We’d like to take a moment to uplift the creative work of our partners at Care, Not Control, a coalition of youth and youth advocates working to end juvenile incarceration in Pennsylvania.
Care, Not Control has released their first track from their upcoming project Care, Not Control: The Album. The track is titled Untold Story, and it features Care, Not Control youth organizer Bre Stoves, 19. Bre also works with Juvenile Law Center and The Village of Arts and Humanities and has been making music since the age of 12.
Bre began the process of working on “Untold Story” while she was incarcerated and hopes the track sends a message of solidarity and camaraderie to her fellow youth. “I want people, especially incarcerated young people, to know they’re not alone. There are people out there fighting for them.”
Care, Not Control: The Album showcases the talents, hopes, and dreams of young people directly impacted by the criminal legal system. The album seeks to shift the narrative surrounding youth incarceration and promote investing in community-based alternatives. Care, Not Control plans to release an educational toolkit to accompany the music that will delve into the album’s themes and promote critical discussions about youth incarceration, violence, and power.
As usual, we’ve been out there with our movement family, making noise and making news the last few months.
Each year, Pittsburgh Magazine and PUMP recognize 40 outstanding individuals under the age of 40 whose creativity, vision, and passion enrich the Pittsburgh region. This year’s 40 Under 40 honorees include ALC Community Organizer Tanisha Long (pictured, left, with fellow 40 Under 40 honoree, Miracle Jones, the Director of Policy and Advocacy at 1Hood Media and former ALC staffer, right).
ALC Executive Director Robert Saleem Holbrook has been constantly on the go, speaking at conferences and events like Netroots Nation and Socialism 2022, while also continuing to share his story for initiatives like the #ExceptForMe#EndtheException campaign to abolish the prison slavery currently allowed in the 13th amendment.
Help ALC sustain the fight to free people from incarceration and other forms of racist state violence by making a tax-deductible donation to the Abolitionist Law Center today. Your gift fuels our collective liberation struggle and powers the transformative change we’re fighting for in the courts, in the streets, behind bars, and on the outside.
CONTACT: William Lukas, Director of Communications: firstname.lastname@example.org
PITTSBURGH – On Tuesday, August 24, 2021, the Abolitionist Law Center, a nonprofit prisoners’ rights law firm, sent a letter to the Allegheny County Solicitor stating it will sue the County, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, and Warden Orlando Harper for entering into contracts with Corrections Special Application Unit (“CSAU”), headed by Joseph Garcia, to train Allegheny County Jail corrections officers unless that contract is cancelled. Another letter was sent to Lightfield Less Lethal Research, a company with which the County contracted to equip staff at the jail with dangerous new weapons, informing the company that ALC will sue them if their products injure anybody at ACJ. ALC claims the enforcement of these contracts violate the federal and Constitutional rights of people incarcerated at ACJ.
ACJ has historically had the most uses of force out of all 67 jails in Pennsylvania. Unconstitutional force is routinely meted out on 64% of the incarcerated population who suffer from a serious mental illness, which has resulted in several individual lawsuits and a class action case pending against ACJ and its officers for using excessive force. The contracts were entered into for the express purpose of responding to the will of the County voters, who in May, passed a referendum to ban the use of specific weapons at the jail and deter uses of force. ACJ and Warden Harper responded by buying new weapons and contracting with a company renowned for its brutality.
ALC’s letters says that “Garcia’s trainings, taught by CSAU, and other training companies he has overseen or directed, violate correctional standards and federal laws, are the subject of civil litigation and criminal inquiries, and have resulted in serious injuries and the death of incarcerated people.” Garcia’s training regimen “prefers and encourages the use of force over de-escalation and harm avoidance techniques.”
ALC also sent a letter to the legal counsel of Lightfield, notifying them of their liability “for selling/furnishing weapons and ammunition to ACJ for use by corrections officers, who are, given the historical record, clearly expected to use them in a negligent, reckless, and perhaps criminal manner on people incarcerated at the jail.” ALC states that “Lightfield appears to be readily aware of Garcia and CSAU’s training tactics, which have resulted in multiple lawsuits and criminal inquiries but your client nevertheless relies on the militaristic training program because it uses Lightfield’s weapons and munitions.”
Copies of the letters are available for download below:
Jaclyn Kurin, Abolitionist Law Center, (703)-850-8914, email@example.com
Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, PA Institutional Law Project, (412) 434-6175 firstname.lastname@example.org
PITTSBURGH – The Abolitionist Law Center (ALC), Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project (PILP), and K&L Gates filed a lawsuit on Tuesday on behalf of April Walker, LaVonna Dorsey, and Alexus Diggs, three formerly incarcerated women with disabilities, who claim they were brutally assaulted by Sergeant John Raible at the Allegheny County Jail. The complaint describes numerous assaults by Raible against people with disabilities involving the over use of pepper spray, tasers and placing people with disabilities in a restraint chair for hours without food, water, medicine, or breaks to relieve themselves.
The Complaint claims that Raible repeatedly pepper sprayed Ms. Walker when she was pregnant and slammed her face into the concrete floor, resulting in her hospitalization. Ms. Dorsey’s claims arise from Raible pepper spraying her in the face, breasts, and buttocks while she was naked and then placing her in a restraint chair with purposely overtightened straps, severely injuring her shoulder. The Complaint also describes an incident where Raible shot multiple pepper pellets at Ms. Diggs because he suspected that she was using a pen to write grievances.
Ms. Walker, Ms. Dorsey and Ms. Diggs are also suing Raible’s supervisors, Warden Orlando Harper, Chief Deputy David Zetwo, and Deputy Chief of Operations Jason Beasom for their failure to train and supervise staff at ACJ which led to the assaults. The lawsuit alleges that before the Plaintiffs were assaulted, Harper, Zetwo, and Beasom were aware of Raible’s violent history of assaulting incarcerated individuals for non-threatening conduct.
“Raible’s actions are horrifying and have no place in our society,” stated Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, Managing Attorney for the PA Institutional Law Project. “More troubling, however, is the absolute disregard shown by his supervisors to a clear pattern of torture and discrimination against women with disabilities.”
“Sergeant Raible’s pattern of assaulting women in ACJ is as disturbing as it is illegal,” said Jaclyn Kurin, staff attorney at the Abolitionist Law Center. “This lawless brutality only exists because Harper, Zetwo, and Beasom permit the systematic abuse of disabled individuals.”
Despite knowing that Raible presented a significant risk of harm to individuals with disabilities, Harper, Zetwo, and Beasom repeatedly failed to discipline or terminate Raible. Rather, they condoned Raible’s abusive and unconstitutional conduct by permitting him to retain his rank as a sergeant and execute his supervisory duties.
The lawsuit alleges that Harper, Zewto, and Beasom knew that ACJ officers routinely used excessive force on individuals with psychiatric disabilities. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections report on use-of-force in jails across the state shows that in 2019, ACJ staff resorted to brutal forms of physical force far more frequently than the other correctional facilities.
The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. The plaintiffs are represented by Jaclyn Kurin and Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center; Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project; David Osipovich, Anna Shabalov, Jessica Moran, and Elizabeth Hoadley of K&L Gates LLP.
PITTSBURGH – The ALC Court Watch, launched by the Abolitionist Law Center in January 2020 to keep courts accountable through data collection and public reporting, has published its first Court Watch Docket Report. Examining municipal court docket information from May 11, 2020 through June 8, 2020, the Report analyzes trends in arrests and bail decisions, highlighting the impact of police and judicial discretion. Notably, the vast racial disparities described in the report lay bare an undeniable system of racial apartheid.
The report states that while Black residents make up only 23.2% of the Pittsburgh population, they experienced 44% of all traffic stops, 71% of all frisks, 69% of all warrantless search and seizures, and 63% of all arrests conducted by the Pittsburgh Police in 2019. Additionally, ALC Court Watch found that Black men, who make up less than 7% of the county population, made up 44% of all misdemeanor defendants. It was also noted that the imposition of money bail tended to be concentrated among individuals from zip codes with a higher proportion of Black residents, with 9 such zip codes (out of the 127 represented by defendants in total) accounting for 37% of all defendants and 38% of the dollar value of monetary bail imposed during this period.
The impact of judicial discretion was highlighted in the report as well, which found that just 3 out of 47 judges were responsible for 34% of all monetary bail impositions and 41% of all secured monetary bail impositions. The lack of standards and glaring inconsistencies present in judicial decisions were pointed to as evidence of the need for a total upheaval of current bail practices.
In sum, the data accumulated by the Court Watch Program shows that—as a result of racially disparate policing and bail decisions—Black residents are more likely to be arrested, charged, and have monetary bail imposed against them. This alone meets the legal definition of racial apartheid, a crime against humanity as defined by international human rights law standards. The report places blame for this state of affairs on police, prosecutors, judges, and elected officials, calling their failure to correct these glaring disparities demonstrative of an intentional policy of racial apartheid.
“Aggregating and interpreting how the visceral and exploitative everyday violences play out – largely against Black community members – makes the Apartheid practices of the county undeniably clear.” said Autumn Redcross, ALC Court Watch Director.
The report, which is the first in what is to be a series of regular publications, closes with three key demands: defunding the police, ending cash bail, and opening the courts. It demands a reduction of police funding to pre-Peduto levels, with the rest of the funding to be put towards education, housing, and healthcare. Additionally, it calls for an end to the bail-as-ransom system of cash bail that drains resources from this county’s most vulnerable communities. Finally, it calls for full remote access through live-streaming of all court proceedings for the sake of transparency, democracy, and accountability.
County Executive Rich Fitzgerald
436 Grant St #101
Pittsburgh, PA 15219
Director Debra Bogen, MD
542 Fourth Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15219
Warden Orlando Harper
950 Second Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15219
Wednesday, May 6, 2020
Dear County Executive Fitzgerald, Director Bogen, and Warden Harper:
As you are all aware, there have now been cumulatively 28 positive results for COVID-19 amongst those incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ). An additional 5 staff members have also tested positive.
Limiting further spread of COVID-19 within the jail is paramount, but without taking stock of the current situation, other measures will prove to be at best inadequate to curb the outbreak. That is why we, the undersigned, are calling for an immediate implementation of a universal testing policy for the ACJ and alternative housing facilities, to encompass both incarcerated persons and staff.
Social distancing is impossible in correctional facilities, where individuals are confined to their cells, which they often share, and frequently recreate, shower, and take meals in communal settings. According to a recent study , closed facilities are more vulnerable to “secondary transmission of COVID-19 and promote superspreading events”. Robust and extensive testing is critical to any comprehensive plan to address the outbreak, limit its transmission, and mitigate its most harmful effects.
Twenty of the 28 positive cases amongst incarcerated persons were announced in the past 10 days. Perhaps more worryingly, the current positive-to-overall-tests ratio is 51%—the recommended benchmark for such a ratio is 10% . Such a high ratio hints there are likely positive cases that remain untested, a worrying indication we will see an explosion of COVID-19 infections in the coming weeks.
We saw a similar explosion in cases in the Allegheny County Treatment Alternative, an alternative housing facility in the county, where 65% of the residents recently tested positive for COVID-19 (11 of 17, overall). According to information provided by the County, ACTA was following “guidance provided by the Allegheny County Health Department and the CDC as it relates to COVID-19, including educating employees and residents on the virus, stressing personal hygiene and regular hand washing, maintaining facility cleanliness, social/physical distancing, visitor restrictions and the availability of PPE.” The guidance and safeguards proved inadequate at ACTA and without a proper universal testing policy and implementation, it will prove similarly inadequate at ACJ.
To date, 1.7% of the jail’s population has tested positive for COVID-19, yet, only 3.3% of the jail’s population has been tested. The County should immediately implement a policy of universal testing, and conduct tests of every individual incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail and of every staff member who works at the facility.
Many other correctional facilities throughout the country have taken great strides to expand testing, with several realizing universal testing within their facilities , and greatly increasing their ability to combat the virus through doing so. Just across the state, Montgomery County Correctional facility recently tested every individual  held therein (938 in total). They discovered the contagion was 30 times more widespread than initial testing had shown, and a large majority of those testing positive were asymptomatic. Unfortunately, a similar dynamic is likely to present in Allegheny County, given the 51% rate of positive results.
Yet, Allegheny County is home to multiple world-class hospitals and medical research centers. One of them—UPMC—recently announced it would be instituting universal testing policies  for both its patients and employees, including those who display no symptoms. As tests have become more readily available, testing policies have become less restrictive and more expansive to meet the great need. Exemplifying this development, a testing site recently opened in North Philadelphia, which will provide universally-accessible testing : “patients don’t need [to] be presenting symptoms, health insurance isn’t needed, and a doctor’s referral isn’t required.” Such progress seems to be manifesting here as well, as County Spokesperson Amie Downs recently relayed, “the [Jail’s] ability to test [has] expanded, [and] results are turned around more quickly.” 
As recently as April 29, 2020, Allegheny County Director of Health, Dr. Debra Bogen, stated that, “Both testing and our capacity to test have also increased in our County…We estimate that we now have the capacity in our own County to do at least 2,000 tests per day  …but we expect that this will also increase.” She affirmed that, with regards to testing, “There is availability and capacity in our community, as needed.”
Funding cannot and must not be a limiting factor. Under federal guidance for the use of the CARES Act, received funds can be used for “costs of providing COVID-19 testing, including serological testing” as well as “COVID-19-related expenses of maintaining state prisons and county jails, including as relates to sanitation and improvement of social distancing measures, to enable compliance with COVID-19 public health precautions.” Furthermore, Allegheny County has had budgetary surpluses over the past several years that would more than account for any costs associated with universal testing.
We, the undersigned, call on Allegheny County, the Health Department, and the jail’s administration to immediately implement a policy of universal testing at ACJ and alternative housing facilities, to protect both those who are detained and those work inside, as well as the greater community more broadly.
-Abolitionist Law Center
-ACLU of Pennsylvania
-Autonomous Student Coalition
-Bukit Bail Fund
-Casa San Jose
-Green Party of Allegheny County
-Human Rights Coalition Fed-Up!
-Let’s Get Free: The Women & Trans Prisoner Defense Committee
-National Lawyers Guild – Pittsburgh Chapter
-The Nightshade Collective
-Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates
-Pittsburgh Feminists for Intersectionality
-Pittsburghers for Public Transit
-Prisoner Legal Support Project of University of Pittsburgh School of Law
-Take Action Mon Valley (TAMV)
-Thomas Merton Center
-Three Rivers Free Clinic for the People
-Volunteers with the Allegheny Chapter of the Pennsylvania Prison Society
-West End P.O.W.E.R.
-Words Without Walls
-Chelsa Wagner – Allegheny County Controller
-Bethany Hallam – Allegheny County Council, At-Large
-Olivia Bennett – Allegheny County Council, District 13
-Garret Wassermann, Candidate for State Rep, 45th District
-Darwin Leuba, O’Hara Township Auditor
-Anna Azizzy Rosati
-Jay Ting Walker
-Richard S. Matesic, Attorney at Law
-Fawn Walker Montgomery
-Lee Markovitz, Attorney at Law
-Stephen Stallings, Esq.
-Michael J. Healey
The rapid spread of COVID-19 has created an international public health crisis. It has now been classified as a global pandemic by the World Health Organization and declared a national emergency by the United States. In Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Wolf ordered all K-12 schools to close and prohibited all public gatherings of over 250 people, and most major universities have switched to online learning for the remainder of the school year. Both City of Pittsburgh Mayor Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald have declared a state of emergency in their respective regions. The nationwide attempt to “flatten the curve” — to slow the infection rate so as not to overwhelm our healthcare system — has led to the implementation of many measures that prevent large groups of people from congregating in close quarters.
However, these measures do not take into account one of the most vulnerable, highly concentrated populations: the county’s jail population, composed of over 2300 individuals packed into tight quarters and often lacking basic hygiene items. Additionally, prevalence of health conditions that increase vulnerability to COVID-19 — including tuberculosis, asthma, HIV, hypertension, diabetes, heart conditions — are all significantly higher among the jail and prison populations. To make matters worse, the jail’s medical capacity isn’t nearly high enough to deal with a potential outbreak within the jail; it is woefully understaffed to deal with the medical needs of incarcerated individuals as is. Many individuals will likely need to be transported to and from the hospital, further increasing the likelihood of exposure and transmission.
Because 81% of individuals at the Allegheny County Jail have not been convicted of a crime, and the rest are serving relatively short sentences, there is a high turnover rate at the jail. Over 100 individuals pass through intake on a daily basis. The result is that many individuals will enter an environment where the risk of contracting COVID-19 is relatively high, and simultaneously many individuals will also be leaving and potentially spreading the illness to others. This high turnover also increases the likelihood that staff at the jail will contract and spread the disease. All of these factors converge to create the perfect storm for a potential COVID-19 outbreak to spread quickly amongst the incarcerated population. Emergency efforts to decarcerate the jail are more crucial now than ever. Doing so will decrease the likelihood of COVID-19 spreading amongst the ACJ population and staff and subsequently throughout the region. It will also make it more manageable for the jail to provide adequate medical care to those affected.
Other counties have already taken steps towards emergency decarceration, and Allegheny County ought to follow their lead to slow the spread of the disease in the region. San Francisco County’s Public Defender has announced that his office’s attorneys will be seeking the immediate release of pre-trial clients who have a high susceptibility to the virus, and the County’s District Attorney has instructed his office’s prosecutors to not oppose these motions for individuals not deemed a threat to public safety and to strongly consider sentences of time served in plea deals. Additionally, the judges, the Public Defender, the District Attorney, and the Sheriff of Cuyahoga County in Ohio, where Cleveland is located, have agreed to hold mass plea and bond reduction hearings in an effort to release as many people as possible from the jail and reduce the impact of potential outbreak of coronavirus among this population. Many other regions are calling for or implementing similar measures. Other countries are taking strong preventive action as well. Iran plans to release 70,000 people from its prisons. Counties in the United States, the country with the highest rate of incarceration in the world, ought to be taking similarly urgent measures. The potential of COVID-19 to spread among the incarcerated population was seen in China, where the incarceration rate is six times lower than in the United States. Over 500 cases of coronavirus were reported from just four prisons in China, two of which were in the region at the epicenter of the outbreak. It is imperative that public officials act now to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the region to prevent a similar outcome.
We are calling on the county executive, county council, and all of county government and administration; judges, prosecutors, and public defenders; police, parole and probation officers to all unite on emergency decarceration initiatives to halt the rapid spread of COVID-19 in Allegheny County.
The Fifth Judicial District of Pennsylvania should:
Immediately lift/postpone imposition of detainers of every individual held on alleged probation violations based on new charges or for technical violations;
Immediately modify bond of those held pretrial to nonmonetary and/or “release on their own recognizance” (‘ROR’);
Cease parole and probation revocation proceedings and terminate long tails;
Release all individuals with less than 6 months left in their sentence;
Release all individuals incarcerated for misdemeanors, whether pretrial or serving a sentence;
Release all individuals incarcerated for drug possession, sex work, and other nonviolent offenses;
Release all elderly individuals (over 50) and those at high risk of vulnerability, including but not limited those with respiratory conditions, heart conditions, diabetes, cancer, or other autoimmune diseases;
Release all pregnant individuals;
Transfer all non-releasable individuals to less restrictive forms of custody, including electronic monitoring and house arrest, where individuals can self-quarantine as needed.
Review individuals on probation or otherwise confined to halfway houses and release those individuals to home confinement automatically;
Terminate in-person reporting for those on pre- or post-trial supervision indefinitely.
The District Attorney of Allegheny County should:
Postpone the convening of grand juries;
Affirmatively support and not oppose the above-mentioned motions and petitions for relief;
Withdraw and drop all pending charges for drug possession, sex work, and other nonviolent offenses.
Law enforcement agencies throughout Allegheny County should:
Recall all pending warrants (that have not been served/executed);
Delay dates of voluntary surrender for incarceration sentences as requested by defense;
Immediately cease arresting individuals for all offenses not directly implicating public safety or an individual’s physical well-being;
Immediately cease arrests on warrants for probation violations — technical and otherwise;
Avoid new bookings into the jail at all costs, limiting incarceration for only the most immediate and severe instances of harm reduction.
Given the similarly dangerous conditions in immigrant detention centers and those jails and prisons that contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), we demand that Allegheny County Jail and county criminal justice officials NOT facilitate the detention of undocumented immigrants or the transfer of them to ICE custody.
County government and the jail administration should immediately:
Issue an emergency order making phone calls free for individuals detained at ACJ;
Ensure all incarcerated people have unlimited and free access to: soap, hand sanitizer, hygiene products, showers and laundry service, NOT monetized through commissary;
Provide free access to books and other reading and writing materials to all individuals incarcerated at the jail;
Provide additional commissary items at-, below-, or no-cost to all individuals, to boost morale during the trying times ahead;
Facilitate the use of video visitation, including confidential video visitations for attorney visits.
We call on our colleagues both in the Office of the Public Defender and in the private criminal defense bar to begin to file motions and petitions, in a pro bono capacity, for all individuals held in Allegheny County Jail under a probation detainer, unaffordable or unjustifiably restrictive bond, and serving long probation or parole terms.
We are demanding that all governmental agencies collaborate on this initiative in order to protect public health. Limiting the spread of COVID-19 — and its mortality rate — requires that we free as many of our neighbors as possible, as they are part of our families and communities. Protecting them and our greater community from avoidable harm go hand in hand, and this must be our shared imperative.
We are calling on other organizations in Allegheny County to endorse and circulate this statement and help shape the course of the response to COVID-19 in our community.
To sign on to the statement, email email@example.com with the name of your organization or fill out via our GoogleForm.
Endorsing Individuals and Organizations:
Abolitionist Law Center
Allegheny County Elders Council
Alliance for Police Accountability
ANSWER Coalition – Pittsburgh Branch
Bargaining Team 1199 NW Neighborcare Health
Bend the Arc: Pittsburgh
Bethany Hallam, Allegheny County Council
Black Unicorn Library and Archive Project
Brilliantly Blessed Community Health and Wellness
Bukit Bail Fund
CAIR - Pittsburgh
Casa San Jose
Chelsa Wagner, Allegheny County Controller, Member of Jail Oversight Board
Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration – West
Community Gone Rogue
Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal (EMAJ)
Fossil Free Pitt Organizing Committee
Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA) Pittsburgh
Green Party of Allegheny County
Human Rights Coalition-Fed Up!
Jerry Dickinson for Congress
Jews Organizing for Liberation and Transformation (JOLT)
Let’s Get Free: Women & Trans Prisoner Defense Committee
Mark Lewis Taylor, Princeton Theological Seminary and EMAJ
National Lawyers Guild – Pittsburgh Chapter
New Evangelistic Ministries
Olivia Bennett, Allegheny County Council
Party for Socialism and Liberation, Pittsburgh Branch
Pennsylvania Prison Society - Allegheny County
Peter Odell Campbell, Assistant Professor, University of Pittsburgh
Pitt Legal Income Sharing Foundation (PLISF)
Pitt Prison Outreach
Pittsburghers for Public Transit
Put People First! PA
Radical Youth Collective
Ratzon : Center for Healing and Resistance
Rep. Sara Innamorato, 21st Legislative District, Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Rep. Summer Lee, 34th Legislative District, Pennsylvania House of Representatives
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.
Brought by Women who Were Housed in Solitary While Pregnant
PITTSBURGH – Allegheny County has settled a lawsuit filed last December by five women who challenged the county jail’s practice of housing pregnant inmates in solitary confinement.
The women are represented by the Abolitionist Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, and the law firm of Reed Smith LLP. Four of the plaintiffs spent time ranging from six to 22 days in solitary confinement while pregnant and incarcerated at Allegheny County Jail (ACJ).
“We are grateful that officials in Allegheny County have recognized how harmful it is to keep pregnant women in solitary confinement,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “It’s unfortunate that it took a federal lawsuit for them to recognize this, but we’re pleased the county has agreed to a progressive, comprehensive, and humane policy. People who are incarcerated have a right to basic healthcare needs and to be treated humanely.”
The plaintiffs were typically placed in isolation for minor, non-violent rules infractions, including possession of too many pairs of shoes in one case and possession of a library book in another. During their time in solitary, they stayed in their cells for 23 to 24 hours per day and were rarely given the opportunity to even shower. They were also denied access to proper nutrition for pregnancy throughout their incarceration.
“The women who brought this lawsuit exhibited tremendous courage under harsh and despairing conditions, and through their efforts they have secured important human rights protections for pregnant women at the Allegheny County Jail,” said Abolitionist Law Center Legal Director Bret Grote.
As part of the settlement, officials from Allegheny County have agreed to numerous new policies and accountability measures that are among the most comprehensive and progressive procedures for housing pregnant inmates in the United States. The settlement prohibits the jail from placing pregnant women in restrictive housing except in rare instances where the inmate poses a serious and immediate risk of physical harm, and decisions to place pregnant women in restrictive housing must be reviewed by the deputy warden and cleared by a medical professional.
In addition, administrators at the jail will provide appropriate diets for pregnant inmates and will track the distribution of meals, and women who are lactating will be allowed to use a breast pump.
The county also agreed to specific enforcement measures. The federal district court will retain jurisdiction to enforce the settlement agreement’s terms for three years. ACJ will also provide a current list of all pregnant women at the jail to the plaintiffs’ lawyers on request and will provide copies of documents related to the placement of any pregnant women in restrictive housing to the plaintiffs’ attorneys.
“Allegheny County has taken an important step in joining the national trend that recognizes there are better alternatives to solitary confinement within our prisons and jails,” said Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, staff attorney for the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. “These policy changes will provide a healthier and safer environment for pregnant women detained at ACJ.”
The case is Seitz v. Allegheny County, and the plaintiffs are represented by Sara Rose and Witold Walczak of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center, Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, and David Fawcett and Aleksandra Phillips of the law firm Reed Smith LLP.
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.