By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
For any parent, having your child exposed to the coronavirus is one of the most frightening things that could happen right now.
Lori Laber and Amy Jacobs are no different except in one very distinct way. Regardless of how hard they try, there’s nothing they can do to help protect their children.
Their sons are just two of 1,776 incarcerated persons who woke up this morning (July 14) in the Allegheny County Jail in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a place that has been harshly criticized for its handling of the coronavirus, specifically it’s almost militant refusal to enact universal testing of employees and inmates at the facility, and most importantly the lack of information that it has shared not only with the public, but also some elected officials.
The most stark example of this occurred last week. For roughly six to eight weeks, coronavirus cases amongst inmates were down. Then in the past two to three weeks, the jail’s daily virus update showed an incredible uptick in the number of pending coronavirus tests. The Pittsburgh Current began asking questions about the numbers. Through anonymous sources and a leaked email, it was discovered that an inmate worker in the jail’s kitchen had tested positive for COVID-19 and every inmate in his unit had been quarantined. The inmate, who was asymptomatic, was only found to have the virus because he was being transferred to another facility and that location required all transfers to be tested.
Today two things are true:
- Three inmates at the Allegheny County Jail currently have COVID-19
- Neither the jail nor the county have ever officially said one thing about it. The Current story is the only public document that indicates that it ever happened.
That, says Laber and Jacobs, is a huge problem. Her son was put in quarantine because he worked with the infected inmate in the kitchen. She finally heard from her son on July12 that his test was negative.
“The worst part about this is the lack of communication from the jail,” says Laber, a Pittsburgh native, currently living in Alabama, although she has returned to the city to try and help her son. I understand it’s a jail, but in this pandemic, we should be able to get information that our loved ones, our children are safe. There are fewer phone calls and visitation is suspended. How do you not get scared about what your kid is going through.
“I have called everyone at the jail, the warden’s office, the chaplain, counselors. I’ve left messages but no one calls back. It’s infuriating, but I’m not going to stop. I’m not leaving until things change.”
Jacobs says she hasn’t heard from her son since March 25. He was in solitary confinement for a time, but even when he was released, he was not allowed phone privileges. However, Jacobs has managed to get some information about him from other sources and what she’s heard isn’t good.
“He’s not feeling well,” Jacobs says. “He’s got a fever, sore throat, diarrhea, headaches, he’s sweating all the time and he’s exhausted. I don’t know if it’s COVID-19, but neither does he. He put in a request for a medical exam, but he hasn’t seen anyone yet. We found out a nurse took pity on him and gave him a Tylenol, but that’s it.
“He’s extremely depressed and not doing well. He needs to be tested. It’s inhumane what they’re doing to these people.”
Jacobs’ son has been incarcerated since June 2019, but the pandemic has continually pushed his trial and hearing dates back. His trial was slated for March, but was postponed due to the pandemic. He was then scheduled for trial July 1, but that date was postponed because the judge in his non-jury trial was sick.
And while some may have the reaction that “these inmates are adults, why should their parents be notified?” It’s not just family that is unable to get information.
Joe Pometto is the attorney for Lori Laber’s son. Pometto showed up for her son’s trial and he wasn’t there. It was only then that he was told his client was in quarantine.
“They don’t give us any information either,” Pometto said. “I called his councilor, the warden’s secretary, I sent an email for a week straight and I didn’t get a response.
“The lack of transparency and communication from the jail is troubling.”
At the start of the pandemic after much prodding by advocates and some elected officials, an effort was undertaken to release, presumably, as many inmates as possible to protect them from getting sick and to lessen any outbreak that might occur within the jail.
And although the jail and judicial system spent a few weeks touting their release numbers, the fact is the reduction in actual population was never that significant. It’s important to remember that the majority of inmates at the ACJ are pretrial inmates, meaning they aren’t guilty of anything. The plan was to release as many of these people as possible, especially those accused of nonviolent crimes. However, a lot of inmates couldn’t be released because in addition to their charges, they were on a judicial detainer. A detainer or hold can be placed for any number of reasons, failure to appear for a hearing or a probation violation.
During the initial release phase, attorneys filed motions for both Laber’s and Jacobs’ son to be released. For their original charges, both received bail and could have been released, but the retainers prevented that and judges refused to remove the detainers.
“They’re using these detainers for whatever reason not to release these people,” Pometto says. “Were it not for that, they’d be home and not worried about being caught in the middle of a pandemic.”
Both Jacobs and Laber say this treatment shows a pattern of disregard that the county and jail management have for incarcerated individuals. On July 2, the Current reported that the county will make $4.3 million in kickbacks from a telecom company that was granted a contract to provide phone and communication services to the county jail.
Wanda Bertram of the national, Prison Policy Initiative, says county jails have for years been reaping profits off of inmates even as other facilities across the country have moved toward inexpensive or free calls.
“These profits come at the expense of people who, in a lot of cases, make very low wages to begin with, and their families,” Bertrand says. “If a county would just refuse to take a profit, the price of calls could be minimal or even free.”
The question now, becomes what can families of the incarcerated individuals do to change the system? Thus far, jail management has seemed impervious to calls for help, transparency and improved communication.
Laber and Jacobs aren’t exactly sure, but they say the situation needs to change.
“I think it’s time we start protesting and getting our message out so people know what’s going on here,” Laber says. “They must think that by not answering us and by not talking to us that they can make us go away. But I’m not going anywhere. I will be here until I know my son, Amy’s son and all the others are being taken care of.
Concludes Jacobs: “These people haven’t been found guilty of doing anything yet and they’re not being treated that way. These are people that we love and I think we deserve some level of communication. Their voices need to be heard.”