By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
Editor’s Note: This is a breaking story and will be updated.
The start of a new month has brought 17 potential new cases of COVID-19 to the Allegheny County Jail. There are currently pending tests waiting for 13 inmates and four staff members.
The number of pending and new cases of the virus has been stable at the jail until Monday when the ACJ listed on its website that two employees had tested positive for the virus. Since then, four more employees have been tested along with the 13 incarcerated individuals. The ACJ updates it’s coronavirus stats daily. Here are the current totals which have changed drastically since Tuesday:
The increase of potential cases at the jail tracks with what has ben also happening at the county level. Today, the county announced 110 new cases of COVID-19, a new one-day record that breaks yesterday’s one-day record of 103. Last week, there were 393 new cases in the county; today’s total maks 298 for the week.
Many advocates and elected officials have been concerned about a major outbreak at the jail and have requested universal testing, like other jails and prisons across the country have done. Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner along with Allegheny County Councilor Bethany Hallam sit on the jail board and attempted to have universal testing mandated on May 7. ACJ officials were against the testing and the board voted it down. The oversight board meets Thursday.
Early on in the pandemic, advocates and elected officials called for a reduction in the jail population to limit the spread of the disease and to protect those at high-risk of catching the disease. As we’ve written previously, efforts to cut population at the Allegheny County Jail in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic have not been nearly as effective as elected and jail officials would lead you to believe.
Officials have touted release numbers as a masterclass in what cooperation can do. Press releases throughout April and May from the Fifth Judicial District pointed to large numbers of inmates, more than 1,200 at one point, being released. But as an examination of the numbers in our previous stories have shown, the actual population of the jail — because of new bookings — was only down about 500 inmates from pre-coronavirus levels.
However, the number of releases still outpaced the number of bookings and it appeared that a real effort was being made to get incarcerated persons out of the jail to prevent a widespread coronavirus outbreak. Until you dive into the numbers. And to be honest, you don’t have to dive too deep to see that the Allegheny County Jail is heading right back to where it was pre-COVID–a large number of incarcerated people who don’t need to be incarcerated.
Long before the pandemic, many public officials and advocates against mass incarceration have maintained that the population is much larger than it has to be for one reason or another including long probation detainers and onerous cash bail for non-violent offenses. When the pandemic hit, many of those same voices began calling for a review of individual cases and releasing as many inmates as possible.
On March 16, there were 2,181 incarcerated individuals at the ACJ. Between that day and June 29, 1,960 people were released. The jail’s daily population dropped steadily between March 16 and April 26 (the lowest population number throughout the pandemic), however, it has been going up since then.
Even more telling is this statistic: Unlike the past three months, more people are being booked into the jail than are being released. That means more chances to infect inmates and staff and more inmates to potentially infect.