By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
An employee at the Allegheny County Jail has tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, According to a release from Allegheny County a short time ago.
The Allegheny County Jail today announced an employee has tested positive for COVID-19.
“The employee did not provide direct care to inmates at the jail and has not been at work since the afternoon of Thursday, March 19, the release says. At this time, there are no positive cases of COVID-19 among direct-contact employees or inmates and all individuals with access to the facility are being strictly monitored for signs and symptoms of the virus,” according to the release
In the past 10 days elected officials, and advocates for incarcerated individuals have been calling for the release of as many inmates as possible. County Councilors Bethany Hallam and Olivia Bennett introduced legislation to allow county council to hasten the release of inmates. However, a majority of the council refused to even discuss the emergency legislation for two weeks. As of this afternoon, though, 545 inmates have been released from the county jail which has a population of well more than 2,000.
Hallam was one of the first public officials to call for the decarceration of inmates and she has long been a critic of conditions of the jail when there hasn’t been a global pandemic.
She told the Current Friday afternoon that she knew it was only a matter of time before the virus breached the walls of the jail. That’s why the legislation brought forth by herself and Bennett was so crucial, she says.
“There were two legal opinions about whether we could legally pass the ordinance [one supporting the ordinance and one not],” she said. “But my colleagues wouldn’t even discuss it. They wouldn’t vote it. We should at least have a public discourse about this and if we can act, we need to act.”
The legislation was referred to county council’s public safety committee, however, the bill was reportedly not discussed at the meeting. Hallam and Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner are both on the jail’s oversight board. At a recent press conference about lowering the jail’s population, the pair said that the board needed to be more involved in discussions about the health and safety of jail inmates in the best of time.
Both officials said they were hoping to learn more about what exactly was being done to protect incarcerated individuals at the jail in light of the coronavirus crisis at the board’s April meeting. That meeting, however, was canceled on March 19 over the objections of both Hallam and Wagner.
In a series of emails obtained by the Current from a member of the jail oversight board, the pair asked Judge Kimberly Clark to reconsider in light of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Wagner wrote: “We all have different levels of interaction with the public (as elected members or appointees), and presently, having to say that all I know is what I read in the news or hear from a corrections officer, etc., I believe is further harming the present situation. Conversely, I believe having some information and being able to say that we have been in communication, convened, though, in a limited sense, it would be helpful as both an affirmative measure, but also in terms of meeting our obligations.”
On Friday, Clark responded to Wagner that she reconsidered the cancelation, but did not change her decision. Clark wrote: “The court has also been working 24.7 to reduce the population at the Jail and I am pleased with the progress but the work continues. The Warden and his staff are also working 24/7 to reduce the population and to ensure that staff and residents are safe. As you can imagine, implementing social distancing in our jail is challenging.”
However, Hallam says that’s what’s frustrating as an oversight board member. Like Wagner, she gets her information about how the situation is being handled inside the jail from third-party sources. “Right now, the role of the jail oversight board is more important than ever,” Hallam says. “This is when we need to have meetings. We need to know exactly what’s being done to protect those that are incarcerated, the employees and the public at large.”
According to today’s release regarding the positive COVID-19 test: ‘The jail continues to follow the guidance provided by the Allegheny County Health Department as it relates to the safety of employees and inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic. Contact tracing has been completed and impacted colleagues of the employee are being contacted with instructions for self-quarantine. As is anticipated with community spread, there is an expectation that COVID-19 will soon impact not only county facilities and departments, but the entire region. For communication purposes, the county will make public notifications related to county facilities and departments when the positive cases impact a greater population than its employees.”
On Thursday evening, the Fifth Judicial District of Pennsylvania issued guidance that barred all attorney visits to the jail. According to the order: