COVID-19 – Protecting Public Health in Allegheny County: Release and Divert People from Allegheny County Jail

Endorse this statement as an organization using this Google Form.

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 acjcovidresponse@gmail.com with the name of your organization or fill out via our GoogleForm.

Endorsing Individuals and Organizations:

1Hood Media

Abolitionist Law Center

ACLU-PA

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

Book ‘em

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 Forge

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

Liberation/Ukombozi 

Mark Lewis Taylor, Princeton Theological Seminary and EMAJ

National Lawyers Guild – Pittsburgh Chapter

New Evangelistic Ministries

Olivia Bennett, Allegheny County Council

Opportunity Fund

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

Prison Radio

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

Richard S. Matesic, Attorney at Law

Steve Macek, North Central College

Take Action Mon Valley

Teach The Change, Chicago

The Big Idea Bookstore & Cooperative

The Lusory

Thomas Merton Center

Three Rivers Free Clinic for the People

UNITE

Veterans for Peace of Western PA (Chapter 47)

West End P.O.W.E.R.

Words Without Walls

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

Allegheny County Jail to Cease Housing Pregnant Women in Isolation

Agreement Reached in Settlement of a Lawsuit

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.

More information about the case is available at www.aclupa.org/seitz.

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.

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Contact:

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