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:

Prison Reform Advocates File Class Action Lawsuit Against Allegheny County Over Jail Conditions and Increased Risk of COVID-19

Allegheny County Jail

April 8, 2020
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT: Andy Hoover, ACLU-PA, media@aclupa.org, 717-514-2747
Bret Grote, Abolitionist Law Center, bretgrote@abolitionistlawcenter.org, 412-654-9070
Rebecca Susman, PA Institutional Law Project, rsusman@pailp.org, 412-254-4771

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 Dechert LLP.

The Allegheny 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 intervention.”

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: