By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
Since the early days of the COVD-19 outbreak in Pennsylvania, most of our public leaders have done a good job telling the public how they should be taking care of themselves.
Wash your hands often and for at least 20 seconds. When you sneeze, sneeze into your elbow; not on your hands and certainly not onto someone else. Be careful touching surfaces and then touching your face. Use plenty of hand sanitizer. Clean surfaces often. And, most importantly, practice social distancing.
But what if you’re not being told these instructions. And, even if you were, what if there was nothing you could do about it. What if you were incarcerated in the Allegheny County Jail and lived in one 6X8 cell with another person, two beds, a sink, and a toilet all next to each other. What if you ate in that room and even did some of your laundry in that sink. What if your access to soap was limited, hand sanitizer is nonexistent and the thought of social-distancing was laughable.
What if while the rest of the world is taking extreme measures not to get the COVID-19, you are just sitting in your cell or communal dining hall or open prison yard just waiting for your turn to get it. And worse yet, you don’t need to be there.
In the past 10 days, advocates for incarcerated individuals and some Allegheny County elected officials have been asking for the population at the Allegheny County Jail to be significantly reduced to prevent more people from catching the COVID-19 virus. The response from the many stakeholders involved in the process from Allegheny County to the Fifth Judicial District to the Allegheny County District Attorney was not a proactive one. While there may have been talks behind the scenes, plans, if they existed, were not relayed to the public.
On March 16, a letter was sent to Allegheny County and the other stakeholders asking for the release of as many inmates as possible from the county lockup, a population that stood at more than 2,000. They sought release for people being held for trial simply because they couldn’t post bail or people held on technical probation violations or even people convicted of low-level crimes whose penalty for a minor offense shouldn’t be a potentially fatal disease.
On March 19, 189 individuals were granted their release. By the afternoon of March 23, 297 incarcerated inmates were released. And while those numbers are a start, officials say, the action took too long, more people need to be released and at a faster pace. And a lot of this could have been avoided if the county wasn’t over incarcerating individuals in the first place. Now, advocates and officials are working to make sure that neither problem happens again.
Ten Days ago, on Saturday, March 14, the Current asked a county spokesperson if there were plans to alleviate the population at the county jail to avoid a widespread outbreak. The response was quick: “The jail is just the detention facility. We don’t get to decide who comes in and out,” she said.
However, Allegheny County Councilor-at-Large Bethany Hallam didn’t agree with that. And tonight (March 24), Hallam and council colleague Olivia Bennett are introducing legislation to direct that direct action be taken to mitigate the spread of disease at the ACJ.
Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner, who sits on the jail oversight board with Hallam, says she has long called for a reduction in the jail population because of cost and because she says, there are too many people in the jail who don’t belong there, now more than ever.
“We need changes now,” Wagner says. “Not just for cost, not just for justice but for the safety of those incarcerated and the community.”
Wagner says healthcare at the jail is already stretched thin (there are roughly 45 unfilled medical positions), an outbreak of coronavirus could have catastrophic results.
“If you’re sick, our county jail is not where anyone should be,” Wagner said. “You belong in a hospital and our hospitals are soon going to be overburdened caring for people with this virus. “This situation doesn’t just impact those incarcerated in the jail. It also impacts the staff at the jail and their families.We need to do everything we can to reduce the risk.”
One of the issues that comes up when you talk about releasing incarcerated individuals for a public health crisis or even just for the injustice of it, is a lot of people lack empathy. But the Allegheny County Jail is not Lucasville, Attica or Soledad. Most of the people in lockup here haven’t even been convicted of a crime. Many suffer from substance abuse or mental health issues, some are being held on a technical probation violation (like missing a meeting or violating a curfew) and are waiting for a judge to hear their case.
According to the language in Hallam’s bill: “more than 80% of those at ACJ are not convicted of any criminal offense; instead, 44% are held on alleged violations of probation, many of them technical violations or based on non-violent charges; 28% of them are held pretrial, with their presumption of innocence intact; countless numbers are held simply because they cannot afford cash bail.”
Hallam has firsthand knowledge of life in the ACJ. She has not been shy about discussing her past issues with drug addiction and she has been incarcerated at the jail.
“I can’t fathom being at the county jail during a pandemic,” Hallam says. “You can’t share a cell, a toilet and a sink with somebody else and practice social distancing. Now more than ever, we have to speak out against the injustices going on there. I know the public defender’s office is working as hard as they can to get as many people out as possible.”
But Hallam says she worries that it will be difficult to get enough people out fast enough. That’s why she and Bennett have brought forth the legislation. It would reduce the population not just in the ACJ but in alternative housing facilities.
According to the bill:
Pursuant to the terms of this Ordinance, the Allegheny County Jail and alternative housing facilities located within Allegheny County are hereby directed to immediately undertake substantial reduction of their population by releasing the following categories of people incarcerated there in order to limit the spread of COVID-19 within the jail and to the broader community, and to reduce the risks and burdens upon correctional staff at this time of emergency:
Those alleged to have committed a technical probation or parole violation;
Those alleged to have violated probation or parole by committing a misdemeanor and/or non-violent offense;
Anybody charged with a misdemeanor and awaiting trial;
Anybody charged with drug possession, sex work, or other nonviolent offenses and who is awaiting trial;
For any individuals currently held in Allegheny County Jail or alternative housing facilities that do not fall into any of the above-mentioned categories, an individualized review should take place. This will explicitly include [those] who have been convicted of a crime and are serving a sentence which includes a term of incarceration in Allegheny County Jail.
In particular, individualized review should be expedited for:
All elderly individuals (over 50) and those at high risk of vulnerability, including but not limited those with respiratory conditions, heart conditions, diabetes, cancer, or other autoimmune diseases;
All pregnant and postpartum individuals;
All children younger than 18 years of age.
It’s unclear what the likelihood is of Hallam and Bennett’s legislation passing (it just needs a simple majority). However, Hallam and Fitzgerald have butted heads in the past so his support is an unknown at best.
However, Hallam says Fitzgerald has spoken publicly before saying he would like to someday see the population of the Allegheny County Jail consistently below 600 inmates.
In December, Fitzgerald spoke at the Pitt Institute of Politics at a “Jail Repurposing Forum.” At that time, Fitzgerald did indeed talk about a shrinking prison population. He was talking about the way that officials in New York City reduced their jail population. (In the video below, his remarks begin at about the 5:20 mark):
“We’re at 2400 [incarcerated], we used to be at 2800,” Fitzgerald said. If Allegheny County Jail reduced its population the same percentage as New York, “…in Pittsburgh that number would be 600. Can you imagine what our jail would be like if we got it down to 600? These are the goals we can reach if we do things the right way.
“Seventy-five percent of the people who are in our jail are there because they have a substance abuse or a mental health issue. Think about that…is that who we should be incarcerating? Is that the best use of our tax dollars? …It makes no sense.”
Hallam for one says she certainly agrees with the county executive’s goal of 600 inmates and says this is the time to make it a reality because there is a public health crisis.
“What we want to see now with these releases, that’s the new normal we’ve been advocating for,” Hallam says. “The county executive has said that’s what he wants to do. Well, then I say let’s do it. Now is the time.”