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

September 15, 2020
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

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

PITTSBURGH – The Abolitionist Law Center (ALC), Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project (PILP), and Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP filed a class action lawsuit today on behalf of people with psychiatric disabilities incarcerated in Allegheny County Jail (ACJ). The lawsuit alleges severe and systemic constitutional violations, as well as violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, for the jail’s failure to provide adequate mental health care and its discriminatory and brutal treatment of people with psychiatric disabilities.

The lawsuit asserts that although ACJ houses hundreds of people with psychiatric disabilities, including anxiety, depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, ACJ is lacking a functioning mental health care system.   Every aspect of a comprehensive system for mental health care, from intake screening, to medication management, provision of counseling and therapy, suicide prevention, and training is either non-existent or wholly deficient at ACJ.  

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

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

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

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

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

The class action lawsuit seeks to represent all people with psychiatric disabilities who are currently, or will in the future, be held at the Allegheny County Jail. The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania and names Laura Williams, Orlando Harper, Michael Barfield, and Allegheny County as defendants. The plaintiffs are represented by Bret Grote, Quinn Cozzens, Swain Uber, and Jacklyn Kurin of the Abolitionist Law Center; Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project; and Keith Whitson of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP.

A copy of the complaint is available here:

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Andrews v. Harper – Complaint-As Filed

Brief in Support of TRO-as Filed

Motion for TRO-as Filed

Order to Show Cause-as Filed