By Brittany Hailer
Pittsburgh Current Managing Editor
The Abolitionist Law Center is asking a federal judge to require COVID-19 testing for all newly admitted incarcerated persons at the Allegheny County Jail.
Last week, the Abolitionist Law Center filed a motion to modify a consent order reached in the district court case, Graham v Allegheny County. The case is a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of incarcerated people at the jail who claimed “conditions at the jail increase the likelihood that they will contract COVID-19.” The consent order effectively settled the case. But attorneys now say circumstances at the jail have changed.
If the motion is granted, Warden Orlando Harper would also have to reassign unvaccinated jail employees to tasks or work shifts where they would not have direct contact with medically vulnerable, unvaccinated incarcerated persons.
U.S. District Court Cathy Bissoon of the Western District of Pennsylvania ordered the county and jail administrators to respond to the motion by March 19.
The motion reads in part, “ACJ’s COVID-19 policies need to be updated to account for worsening conditions and new guidance by public health experts. In February 2021, nearly 146 people incarcerated at ACJ tested positive for COVID-19. Within a month, the positivity rate for incarcerated individuals surged from 3% to 33%. Equally alarming, since December 2020, the ACJ staff positivity rate has been above 50%, and consistently nearly twice the rate in Allegheny County.”
According to the motion, ACJ administration has not begun vaccinating incarcerated individuals. The facility is still waiting on state authorization to administer the vaccine and doses of the vaccine: “More concerning, however, ACJ has not yet developed a written vaccination plan for distributing the vaccine in the facility, including for those who are incarcerated.”
County spokesperson Amie Downs did not respond to requests for comment or requests for guidance or policy regarding testing of asymptomatic individuals at the jail. Attorneys at the Abolitionist Law Center declined to comment for this story
The motion includes an expert declaration from Dr. William Weber, clinical associate of emergency medicine at the University of Chicago who has worked on the national level to guide care within the pandemic. Weber co-authored content for a World Health Organization course on COVID-19 management and infection control strategies.
Weber’s declaration reads, “I have reviewed medical records pertaining to the medical care of patients in carceral facilities scattered throughout the U.S. and have written over 30 medical declarations discussing care as it pertains to the National Detention Standards, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations for carceral facilities, and accepted standards of medical care. Many of these cases involve the implementation of COVID-19 mitigation strategies by facilities.”
In his declaration, Weber cited Pittsburgh Current coverage of ACJ testing practices, mitigation efforts and covid cases extensively and concluded the following recommendation.
ACJ should institute a broader and more rigorous COVID-19 testing regimen including:
- Testing all inmates arriving in the SHU (Segregated Housing Unit)
- Testing inmates within 72 hours of their transfer to the general population until the facility can ensure appropriate quarantine procedures (e.g., no additional close exposure such as new cellmates during the quarantine)
- ACJ should promptly develop a written plan for the mass vaccination of inmates who qualify for vaccination under Pennsylvania guidelines
- ACJ should institute a system to decrease the spread of COVID-19 to and from staff by: Encouraging all employees to be vaccinated and encouraging employees to report COVID-19 symptoms and undergo testing by ensuring that those who are diagnosed with COVID-19 infection have sick leave
- Assigning or re-assigning unvaccinated staff to positions or locations where they have lower risk of exposure to COVID-19
- ACJ should institute a broader and more rigorous COVID-19 testing regimen including:
As COVID-19 cases and new variants continue to crop up in the community, the ACJ also does not universally test incarcerated persons upon entry or exit of the facility, despite the success of similar programs at other facilities.
A state prison in North Carolina discovered 444 cases of COVID-19 after mass testing 700 incarcerated persons. Officials discovered that 90% of the facility’s cases were asymptomatic.
While the jail updates it’s COVID-19 dashboard periodically, these numbers may not accurately reflect the number of infections because they are based on selective and inconsistent testing practices according to dozens of incarcerated persons and ACJ employee testimony.
In the March Jail Oversight Board meeting, Deputy Warden Laura Williams said, “It is not recommended, mandated, supported to test the entire facility unless there would be evidence to suggest disease presence exists.”
The CDC issued a guidance that communities with moderate to substantial levels of community transmission “can consider” baseline testing for all current incarcerated persons as well as testing all new incarcerated persons at intake before they join the rest of the population in the facility.