By Matt Petras
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Five Allegheny County Jail inmates are suing the facility for discriminatory and cruel treatment against incarcerated persons with mental illness and for inadequate mental health treatment, including the use of solitary confinement and restraint chairs.
These individuals, Shaquille Howard, James Byrd, Jason Porter, Keisha Cohen and Albert Castaphany, are suing both on their own behalf as well as on the behalf of all other ACJ inmates with mental illness. Chief Deputy Warden of Healthcare Services Laura Williams, Warden of ACJ Orlando Harper, Mental Health Director Michael Barfield and the county have been named as the defendants in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges that the ACJ violated the 14th Amendment, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act for a slew of misconduct against inmates with mental illnesses. According to the lawsuit, ACJ used solitary confinement, tasers and restraint chairs to control inmates with psychiatric disabilities instead of offering appropriate mental health treatment. It raises news coverage, such as a 2015 Washington Post story reporting that the Pennsylvania prison system announced it will no longer put inmates with mental illness in solitary confinement.
The inmates also accused ACJ of being understaffed regarding mental healthcare and called attention to its lack of individual and group counseling or therapy services. The lawsuit posits that providing such mental healthcare is a bare minimum requirement for jails.
Included in the lawsuit are specific accounts from the five inmates, who have mental health concerns like bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. About 44% of ACJ’s population of more than 2,000 inmates have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder and more than a quarter have serious physiological issues, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics information cited in the lawsuit.
One of the plaintiffs, Howard, has been incarcerated at ACJ since June 2017 and suffers from PTSD and adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depression, according to the lawsuit. Howard is said to have spent more than half of his time at ACJ in solitary confinement, during which he “spent about 23 hours a day in a tiny, dirty, concrete cell, with little to no opportunity for human interaction, exercise or recreation.” He was also said to have been placed in a restraint chair with mace on his face without food, drink, medication or bathroom breaks.
A medication he uses to treat his PTSD is also said to have been discontinued without notice or explanation. The lawsuit alleges an officer encouraged him to commit suicide after his repeated requests for treatment were ignored. In February of 2020, Howard attempted to hang himself while in solitary confinement.
The lawsuit contains similar allegations of inmates with mental illness being denied treatment, held in solitary confinement and restrained in chairs. Some inmates have urinated or defecated while in restraint chairs, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit draws attention to the disproportionate incarceration of Black people in ACJ, where Black individuals make up 67 percent of the jail’s population despite representing only 13.4 percent of the county’s population.
“In Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, the overwhelming brunt of the conditions of incarceration at ACJ is born by the Black community,” according to the lawsuit.