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Incarcerated at the ACJ: Allegheny County Jail during Coronavirus ‘it’s a shitshow in here.’

By December 14, 2020 No Comments

By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
charlie@pittsburghcurrent.com

Before he went to the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) 27 months ago, Kevin Harris worked as a chef at several restaurants around town. And although his culinary training is extensive, you don’t have to be James Beard to realize that the tray of food he was holding was no gourmet meal.

“What is it? December 12 at 6 p.m., this is what they’re serving us for dinner tonight,” Harris told his aunt over a video call from the ACJ Saturday night, which has since been posted online and shared. “It’s baloney with apple sauce on it with some Teddy Grahams. That’s the only thing that’s on our tray for dinner tonight. No Juice, no vegetables, no fruit, no nothing. 

“I want you to make this go viral, Auntie. It’s warm baloney with apple sauce on it and they’re telling us to deal with it or eat shit.”

Harris’ video is just the latest in a string of problems at the ACJ during the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the increase in infected and quarantine employees, staffing at the jail is also at what several employees have described as a critical and dangerous level.

Incarcerated people at the jail have complained to the Pittsburgh Current in the past about food quality, portion size and nutritional value. Jail administration has often ignored those complaints, but Harris’ Saturday video detailed how bad things really are. An employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of workplace reprisals, confirmed the menu for the evening of Harris’ video. On Sunday night, the employee said residents got some salami slices, bread and a small scoop of potatoes, a meal they described as horrible.

On Monday morning, ACJ Warden Orlando Harper wrote the Pittsburgh Current in an email that there have been several more pod quarantines at the jail because the staff is following, “all protocols set forth by medical, as well as the CDC, PA-DOH, Corrections and ACHD guidelines.” That has resulted in kitchen staff quarantines. 

“Throughout the weekend, two of the three pods that work in the kitchen had inmates exhibiting symptoms and as a precautionary measure, no one on those pods were allowed to work their shifts,” Harper wrote. “The third pod actually worked a second shift to provide the bagged meals that were seen in the post [by Harris]. Other inmates volunteered on Saturday evening and began working in the kitchen yesterday morning along with additional staff from Trinity. Moving forward, the facility is planning to order ready-to-go meals that can be utilized in similar situations.

“Inmates are provided breakfast, lunch and dinner on a daily basis. Meals are selected from a menu schedule designed to meet recommended dietary allowances and caloric intake requirements. The menu schedule is reviewed by a registered dietitian. ACJ’s food service operation is subject to frequent inspections to ensure that all applicable standards and laws are met. Meals are never used as a reward or disciplinary measure.”

But Harris, a chef and nutritionist, strenuously disagrees with Harper.

“It is a shitshow in here,” Harris told the Pittsburgh Current by phone on Sunday morning. “We are told to follow the rules as inmates. But they also have rules and responsibilities to us and the public that they need to follow and they’re not doing it.

“We are not getting the nutritional value that we need to sustain ourselves. Nothing is fresh. We don’t get fruit or vegetables. Last night, we didn’t get anything to drink with that meal. We’re getting baloney at least three-to-four times a week; usually more. They slice it, they dice it, they chop it; they even throw it on top of mashed potatoes, like that makes it better.”

Food from the ACJ kitchen is the only way for people inside the jail to eat for free. There is a commissary where additional food like ramen noodles can be purchased, but Harris says not all inmates are fortunate enough to have “money on their books.” In the past several months of the pandemic, members of the Jail Oversight Board have put $50 on the books of all residents to help them during the pandemic where they are locked down 23 hours a day to try and stop the spread of COVID-19. A plan that isn’t currently working.

The virus was brought into the jail a few weeks ago after several employees attended one or two events held by other staff members. At this time, more than 60 employees are either infected or quarantined. Right now, there are 26 inmates with COVID-19. Last week after the jail’s kitchen workers were exposed to the virus, their pod was locked down. According to employees, two additional pods have been locked down since then. Many employees are working on forced overtime to cover shifts, but even so,, there are still massive staff shortages of both correctional officers and medical personnel. Employees tell the Pittsburgh Current that the facility has been short anywhere from 25-45 employees for most of the past week. 

Employees say he lack of staff is causing problems. Jail intake is where people are brought in by law enforcement. After that, they are sent to holding cells in processing where they are assigned pods and moved into the facility. There is usually a member of the medical staff at both of these points. One employee recalled last week that there were a number of people in the holding cell when one man sucker-punched another man in the back of the head. The victim fell to the floor and went into seizures.

“I’m not exaggerating when I say it took nine minutes for someone to come down to medical to help him,” the employee says. “Normally there is someone back there. Nine minutes? That’s not right.”

Over the weekend, according to the same employee, 57 people  were left in processing for more than 36 hours. It’s important to get incoming persons  processed, the employee said, so they can be logged into the jail so they can contact their families, get money on their books. 

“It’s not a good situation,” the employee said. “The inmates are getting this horrible food, employees are being forced to work additional shifts, sometimes back-to-back, and this administration continues to act like nothing is going on. 

“It’s funny, when we walk into work, there is a sign that says, ‘You are essential.’ Yet, we still haven’t received hazard pay even after the county got $212 million in CARES Act money for that. Nobody here feels essential.”

Jaclyn Kurin, a staff attorney for the Abolitionists’ Law Center said that on a good day, the ACJ has difficulties giving adequate care to incarcerated people.To do so while  even more short-staffed is unthinkable.

“At the best of times, the jail administration has been unable to provide adequate medical and mental health care to those incarcerated at ACJ, as indicated in the two recently-filed class action lawsuits against the jail,” Kurin told the Pittsburgh Current. “And now, with increased staffing shortages due to exposure and quarantine, and the administration’s refusal to adequately test people at the jail, these unconstitutional shortcomings will cost lives.”

When asked about staffing and the deficiencies seen by employees in medical personnel staffing Harper claims it is all a matter of perspective.

“As to medical, we rely upon the dedicated staff at the facility, but also recognize their perceptions from their individual positions may not reflect the operation of the facility as a whole,” he said. “When staffing is a challenge, decisions are made to shift resources to where they are most needed. Such decisions are made to ensure staffing where there is the most critical need, and in full recognition that there may be an impact on other areas and staff as a result of that change. While there may be call-offs, or vacancies, the shifts are not uncovered.

“That was the case on Friday and Saturday as medical staff were directed to other critical needs, but on Sunday morning, medical was at intake to clear those inmates and allow them to be assigned to a pod and transferred from intake.”

Being locked down 23 hours a day, Harris says the jail’s residents don’t always know exactly what’s going on. But they can tell things are not right when they see the same officers on back-to-back shifts or officers they’ve never seen before called in to cover shifts.

“We’re like mushrooms to the warden,” Harris says. “They feed us shit and keep us in the dark. But our rights are being violated. Not just by our treatment in here, but through our denial of due process. I was supposed to have gone on trial this past winter, but they closed the courts down. I’ve been here 27 months [on weapons and marijuana-related charges], been denied bail and been denied my right to a speedy trial. At this point, I don’t know when I’ll get my trial.”

Harris was originally arrested and faced state charges. That case was dismissed, however, and then picked up by federal prosecutors. Feds asked that Harris be held without bond and the judge obliged. And while he is incarcerated, it’s important to understand that Harris and many other residents of the jail (about 60 percent) have not  been found guilty of any crime. 

Harris says he would not be surprised if he is somehow punished for taking his complaints public, but he says things are so dire that he has to speak up.

“I’m not just speaking up for myself,” Harris says. “I’m speaking up for all of the people in here that can’t or won’t speak up. People who can’t afford to supplement their diet with commissary. I’ve given my tray to other inmates because they are so hungry. 

“And look, I have no delusions of where I am. I’m in jail and I don’t expect candle-lit fine dining. But I and others are here against our will and this county has a responsibility to take care of us and they’re not holding up their end of the bargain. Baloney and graham crackers?”

Editor’s Note: Issues at the Allegheny County jail is an ongoing story that we will continue to cover. To tell your story or to pass a long a tip: charlie@pittsburghcurrent.com. We will have more coverage  online and in our digital issue this Wed. Dec. 16.

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