PITTSBURGH – In
the wake of the global pandemic, three people detained at the Allegheny County
Jail filed a federal class action lawsuit today against the county, seeking
relief from the dangerous conditions putting them and others at risk of exposure
to the novel coronavirus and the disease COVID-19. The three plaintiffs are
represented by the Abolitionist Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union
of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, and the law firm
County Jail reports the release of as many as 600 people in recent weeks,
reflecting a 20 percent population drop and earning the county praise for its
efforts. However, as the lawsuit notes, Warden Orlando Harper has failed to
properly take advantage of the decrease in the population by consolidating
housing units in the jail, leaving at least one entire floor completely
unoccupied and continuing to house two people per cell.
“When the prime directive for protecting
public health and limiting the risk of transmission of COVID-19 is social
distancing, the decision of Warden Harper to increase population density inside
the jail defies belief,” said Bret Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist
Law Center. “It is reckless and will result in higher infection rates and
deaths in the jail and throughout the county unless there is immediate judicial
As the nation
responds to the pandemic in accordance with the recommendations of the Centers
for Disease Control, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf has issued a stay-at home
order and urged Pennsylvania residents to adhere to guidelines that people
incarcerated in the jail are unable to follow.
The dimensions of
the cells make it impossible for people in jail to follow the CDC
recommendation of remaining six feet away from others. And the people in the
cells share a toilet, sink, and a desk, increasing the likelihood of
transmission of the virus.
“Jails are already
the epicenter of COVID-19 spread in cities across the country, with infection
rates at Rikers Island in New York seven times higher than the city itself,”
said Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, managing attorney at the Pennsylvania
Institutional Law Project. “ACJ’s inability to follow CDC guidelines for a
virus as deadly as COVID-19 will have devastating consequences for our clients
and the community.”
In the lawsuit,
the plaintiffs argue that their health conditions, including hepatitis C,
hypertension, and asthma, increase the likelihood that they will suffer serious
or permanent harm from COVID-19. They argue that jail administrators are in
violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the due process clause of
the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as all of the plaintiffs are
being held pretrial on minor charges.
”Our clients are
at heightened risk because of their underlying health conditions,” said Sara
Rose, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “The leadership at the
jail has been utterly irresponsible and has failed to protect them. We need the
court to intervene to guarantee our clients’ rights and their safety.”
The lawsuit seeks
to represent all people who are currently and will be held at the Allegheny
County Jail during the COVID-19 crisis, including those who are considered high
risk for contracting COVID-19 due to age, medical condition, or disability. The
plaintiffs have asked the court to order their release and the release of
people in the jail who are medically vulnerable. In addition, the lawsuit
requests that the court order Harper to implement practices in the jail that
are consistent with CDC guidelines.
The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania and names Harper and Allegheny County as defendants. The plaintiffs are represented by Bret Grote, Quinn Cozzens, and Jackie Kurin of the Abolitionist Law Center; Sara Rose and Witold Walczak of the ACLU of Pennsylvania; David Fathi of the ACLU National Prison Project; Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project; Sozi Tulante, Will Sachse, Cory Ward, Ryan Moore, and Rebecca Rosenberg of Dechert LLP; and volunteer attorneys Jules Lobel and Swain Uber. A copy of the complaint and declaration are available for download below:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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