By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
Editor’s Note: Updates appear at the end of this story.
An alliance of elected officials and other organizations led by the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration, a statewide advocacy group for individuals in lockup, is calling for the “decarceration” of the Allegheny County Jail in light of the Covid-19 virus.
While drastic steps have been taken to slow the spread of the virus by closing schools, banning large gatherings and asking nonessential employees in all professions to work from home, CADBI says that nothing has been done to help Allegheny County Jail inmates.
“These measures do not take into account one of the most vulnerable, highly concentrated populations: the county’s jail population, composed of over 2300 individuals packed into tight quarters and often lacking basic hygiene,” according to a statement released by the group. “Additionally, prevalence of health conditions that increase vulnerability to COVID-19 — including tuberculosis, asthma, HIV, hypertension, diabetes, heart conditions—are all significantly higher among the jail and prison populations. To make matters worse, the jail’s medical capacity isn’t nearly high enough to deal with a potential outbreak within the jail; it is woefully understaffed to deal with the medical needs of incarcerated individuals as is. Many individuals will likely need to be transported to and from the hospital, further increasing the likelihood of exposure and transmission.”
Bret Grote, an attorney for the Abolitionist Law Center, says Covid-19 will hit the county jail, it’s just a matter of time. And the AJC, he says, is not equipped to deal with it.
“Look, I don’t think the jail provides adequate healthcare in normal times,” Brett Grote, of the Abolitionist Law Center told the Pittsburgh Current Monday Morning. The risk of a Covid-19 outbreak dramatically exacerbates those problems.
“There are people constantly cycling in and out of there, most of whom don’t need to be there. If the jail continues to operate at normal or even 50 to 75 percent of normal capacity, it will become an incubator for Covid-19.”
It’s a fact that there is sometimes an alarming lack of empathy, close-minded as it may be, from the general public when it comes to incarcerated individuals. But it’s hard to argue that Allegheny County Jail inmates should remain locked up with little chance to avoid contracting a potentially deadly virus should it breach the prison’s walls.
According to Cabdi, 81 percent of individuals at the ACJ have not been convicted of any crime or offense, and “the rest are serving relatively short sentences.” Moreso, there is a large population turnover at the county jail and employees, law enforcement officers, attorneys and visitors come to the facility daily.
“Over 100 individuals pass through intake on a daily basis. The result is that many individuals will enter an environment where the risk of contracting COVID-19 is relatively high, and simultaneously many individuals will also be leaving and potentially spreading the illness to others,” according to the release. “This high turnover also increases the likelihood that staff at the jail will contract and spread the disease. All of these factors converge to create the perfect storm for a potential COVID-19 outbreak to spread quickly amongst the incarcerated population.
“Emergency efforts to decarcerate the jail are more crucial now than ever. Doing so will decrease the likelihood of COVID-19 spreading amongst the ACJ population and staff and subsequently throughout the region. It will also make it more manageable for the jail to provide adequate medical care to those affected.”
Among the signers to the letter are Allegheny County Councilors Olivia Bennett, Bethany Hallam, Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner, 18th District Congressional Candidate Jerry Dickinson, Pa. House District 21 Rep. Sara Innamorato, 1Hood Media, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Casa San Jose and the Green Party of Allegheny County.
“It’s time for us all to act: The local courts, the District Attorney, the Public Defender, everyone,” Hallam said Monday morning. “We’ve forbidden groups of more than 50 people in one place in the city, but the Allegheny County Jail has over 2400 people in a small space, especially intake.”
This morning Allegheny County announced two new cases of Covid-19 had been confirmed. One of the individuals is in their 60s and one is in their 50s. Both are isolated at home. According to the county health department, that brings the total number of cases to six with “many others pending.” On Sunday, Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald asked all nonessential businesses to close for at least the next 14 days.
Prison outbreaks have already happened in other countries. By the end of February, there were 555 infected inmates at five Chinese prisons. The country has a prison population considerably lower than the U.S.
So far, different detention centers have enacted different policies to help stop the spread of Covid-19. A lot of these policies started with banning visits from inmates’ families and friends. This rule in Italy led to a riot that resulted in 12 inmate deaths and the escape of 16 other inmates.
In the U.S., some jurisdictions are trying to be proactive. In Cleveland, officials this morning released 300 inmates, in an attempt to stop the virus’ spread, from the Cuyahoga County Justice Center to reduce the risk of COVID-19 in the jail.” WOIO 19 in Cleveland reported Justice Brendan Sheehan saying last week: “If it hits us and the jail, it will cripple our criminal justice system,” and with a population of “about 1,900 … there won’t be enough room to quarantine the infected inmates.”
Because 81% of individuals at the Allegheny County Jail have not been convicted of a crime,, there is a high turnover rate at the jail. Over 100 individuals pass through intake on a daily basis. The result is that many individuals will enter an environment where the risk of contracting COVID-19 is relatively high, and simultaneously many individuals will also be leaving and potentially spreading the illness to others. This high turnover also increases the likelihood that staff at the jail will contract and spread the disease. All of these factors converge to create the perfect storm for a potential COVID-19 outbreak to spread quickly amongst the incarcerated population. Emergency efforts to decarcerate the jail are more crucial now than ever. Doing so will decrease the likelihood of COVID-19 spreading amongst the ACJ population and staff and subsequently throughout the region. It will also make it more manageable for the jail to provide adequate medical care to those affected.
According to CABDI, San Francisco County’s public defender is asking for the release of pre-trial inmates who are “highly susceptible” to the virus. In that situation, the county’s district attorney says his office won’t oppose these motions for inmates “not deemed a threat to public safety and to strongly consider sentences of time served in plea deals.
“We are calling on the county executive, county council, and all of county government and administration; judges, prosecutors, and public defenders; police, parole and probation officers to all unite on emergency decarceration initiatives to halt the rapid spread of COVID-19 in Allegheny County,” CABDI writes. They asked for the following agencies to take the following actions:
The Fifth Judicial District of Pennsylvania should:
- Immediately lift/postpone imposition of detainers of every individual held on alleged probation violations based on new charges or for technical violations;
- Immediately modify bond of those held pretrial to nonmonetary and/or “release on their own recognizance” (‘ROR’);
- Cease parole and probation revocation proceedings and terminate long tails;
- Release all individuals with less than 6 months left in their sentence;
- Release all individuals incarcerated for misdemeanors, whether pretrial or serving a sentence;
- Release all individuals incarcerated for drug possession, sex work, and other nonviolent offenses;
- Release 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;
- Release all pregnant individuals;
- Transfer all non-releasable individuals to less restrictive forms of custody, including electronic monitoring and house arrest, where individuals can self-quarantine as needed.
- Review individuals on probation or otherwise confined to halfway houses and release those individuals to home confinement automatically;
- Terminate in-person reporting for those on pre- or post-trial supervision indefinitely.
The District Attorney of Allegheny County should:
- Postpone the convening of grand juries;
- Affirmatively support and not oppose the above-mentioned motions and petitions for relief;
- Withdraw and drop all pending charges for drug possession, sex work, and other nonviolent offenses.
Law enforcement agencies throughout Allegheny County should:
- Recall all pending warrants (that have not been served/executed);
- Delay dates of voluntary surrender for incarceration sentences as requested by defense;
- Immediately cease arresting individuals for all offenses not directly implicating public safety or an individual’s physical well-being;
- Immediately cease arrests on warrants for probation violations – technical and otherwise;
- Avoid new bookings into the jail at all costs, limiting incarceration for only the most immediate and severe instances of harm reduction.
County government and the jail administration should immediately:
- Issue an emergency order making phone calls free for individuals detained at ACJ;
- Ensure all incarcerated people have unlimited and free access to: soap, hand sanitizer, hygiene products, showers and laundry service, NOT monetized through commissary;
- Provide free access to books and other reading and writing materials to all individuals incarcerated at the jail;
- Provide additional commissary items at-, below-, or no-cost to all individuals, to boost morale during the trying times ahead;
- Facilitate the use of video visitation, including confidential video visitations for attorney visits.
And just in case those agencies don’t act, CABDI is calling on “colleagues both in the Office of the Public Defender and in the private criminal defense bar to begin to file motions and petitions, in a pro bono capacity, for all individuals held in Allegheny County Jail under a probation detainer, unaffordable or unjustifiably restrictive bond, and serving long probation or parole terms.
“We are demanding that all governmental agencies collaborate on this initiative in order to protect public health. Limiting the spread of COVID-19 – and its mortality rate – requires that we free as many of our neighbors as possible, as they are part of our families and communities. Protecting them and our greater community from avoidable harm go hand in hand, and this must be our shared imperative.”
Agencies and elected officials signing onto the demand include,
Abolitionist Law Center
Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration — West
Take Action Mon Valley
Human Rights Coalition-Fed Up!
Bukit Bail Fund
Casa San Jose
Radical Youth Collective
Allegheny County Elders Council
New Evangelistic Ministries
West End P.O.W.E.R.
Olivia Bennett, Allegheny County Council
Bethany Hallam, Allegheny County Council
Jews Organizing for Liberation and Transformation (JOLT)
Ratzon : Center for Healing and Resistance
ACLU of Pennsylvania
Rep. Sara Innamorato, 21st Legislative District, Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Black Unicorn Library and Archive Project
Green Party of Allegheny County
Chelsa Wagner, Allegheny County Controller, Member of Jail Oversight Board, and Community Forge
Three Rivers Free Clinic for the People
Pennsylvania Prison Society — Allegheny County
Jerry Dickinson for Congress
Fossil Free Pitt Organizing Committee
Update, 3:55 p.m.:
In a statement sent to the Pittsburgh Current this afternoon, Mike Manko, spokesperson for Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala said, “Our office is involved in ongoing discussions with the Office of the Public Defender to produce a list of current inmates at the jail, represented by the public defender, who would be considered high risk to determine if they can be released. We will also welcome any discussions from private attorneys who represent inmates they believe to be high risk.”
Manko also pointed out that “since January 9, 2020 we have supported termination of probation for 120 different individuals and more than 100 of those recommendations have been granted.”