By Brittany Hailer
Pittsburgh Current Managing Editor
UPDATE: Less than 24 hours after publishing this story, 13 incarcerated persons tested positive for COVID-19 at the Allegheny County Jail resulting in a total of 88 positive cases in less than two weeks. The Pittsburgh Current obtained an internal email from Warden Orlando Harper to Allegheny County Jail Staff.
An outbreak of COVID-19 at the Allegheny County Jail has resulted in 75 new cases in just 10 days. That number may grow even larger because there are 54 test results outstanding, according to the ACJ website.
While cases mount and information about testing is murky, inmates have very specific stories about how jail staff and administrators handle COVID mitigation efforts and testing.
The Pittsburgh Current obtained dozens of sworn court declarations and independent interviews by incarcerated persons at the ACJ during the COVID-19 pandemic. A declaration is a written statement submitted to a court. The writer swears ‘under penalty of perjury’ that the contents are true–acknowledging that they may be prosecuted for perjury if they lie in their statement.
The following accounts are based on information from the sworn declarations.
Even when housing pods within the ACJ are on quarantine, whether because of the intake process or due to a COVID-19 outbreak, many people still come on and off the pods, including correctional officers, healthcare staff, jail administrators, pod workers, and even quarantined incarcerated persons.
Incarcerated persons and employees maintain that the jail’s use of the word “quarantine” doesn’t mean “no-contact.” Incarcerated persons leave their cells to shower. They leave their cells for arraignments or to make phone calls. They are entitled to one hour of recreation. Jail employees hand-deliver food and medicine to individuals who are known positive cases, and, possibly, those who are asymptomatic.
In February 2021, one witness testified, “There were many inmate workers who shared a cell with non-inmate workers. There are many inmate workers who because of their job, must travel throughout the jail, visit different hallways and housing pods, congregate areas, rooms, and other locations outside of the pods they reside on, and often come into close contact with other incarcerated individuals, ACJ employees, and contractors at the jail. ACJ has put inmate workers in the same cell as non-workers. Even if the non-worker is quarantined or kept locked in his cell for 23 hours a day, his cellmate might visit different locations outside the pod and encounter other individuals before returning to the cell they share.”
This same witness reported that as recently as this month, inmates were not routinely tested at the ACJ. Even the cellmates of persons who were known positive cases were not tested. At least a dozen incarcerated persons also testified they were refused requests for tests for COVID-19. Multiple incarcerated persons at the ACJ allege that they were denied tests despite exhibiting symptoms such as fever, coughing, and body aches.
In April 2020, one incarcerated person began coughing, and sneezing but continued to work throughout the jail, passing out meal trays and toilet paper through cell doors. Shortly thereafter, his cellmate began exhibiting symptoms, too. Both requested medical attention and COVID-19 tests and both men were denied, according to court documents.
According to another man incarcerated in April 2020, “My cellmate had a high fever and was suffering extreme shortness of breath those days we were locked in together. She was eventually taken to the infirmary. No further precautions were taken for those who were confined on the pod or otherwise had interaction with either myself or my cellmate. I remain double-celled, as another person was moved right into my cell. The cell was not cleaned prior to her moving in. My new cellmate has a colostomy bag and serious medical conditions. I was never tested for Covid-19.”
One man reported that he asked a mental health provider in November 2020 if he could be tested for COVID-19. He had fever and body aches and couldn’t stop coughing. Would the provider please tell medical and get him a test? The man had been requesting a test for days from officers who refused.
“He told me, ‘You look pretty fine to me,’ He then said I was “delusional” for thinking I could catch COVID-19. He diagnosed me with anxiety and prescribed a mental health medication, Remeron,” the individual reported. He later tested positive for COVID-19.
In another case, a 74-year-old man fell and broke his hip and wasn’t given an COVID test until he was transferred to Allegheny General Hospital. He’d been housed at the ACJ for months. His test came back positive after he was transferred out of the ACJ and to a public hospital.
According to the incarcerated person who discovered the man who fell, the elderly are especially vulnerable and neglected within the ACJ. Those who are older and most at-risk never leave their cells
“I feel bad for the old people who have been in these homes in hospice—you’re tucked away from the world. No one can find you and contact you. This was a real reality check for me,” he said.
This incident also calls into question the accuracy of COVID-19 information being reported by the ACJ.
On the jail’s COVID-19 dashboard, under the header, “Number of COVID-19 Related Hospitalizations,” the number is listed as zero and has been so since last year. However, Warden Harper confirmed in an email that two incarcerated persons have been transferred to a hospital.
“Both individuals were monitored for an appropriate period of time and returned to the jail. Both individuals have fully recovered from COVID-19,” he wrote.
In a sworn statement, an incarcerated person told Deputy Laura Williams, “Since you transferred these inmates who were around infected people and moved them to our pod, how does that affect us? That’s not sanitary or safe.”
This incarcerated person says he told Williams that he knew that people can have COVID-19 and not have a fever.
“I said that taking our temperatures is not able to identify infected people who are asymptomatic. Deputy Williams became visibly upset,” he said.
According to him, Williams said, “We’re waiting to solve that issue because we’re not sure if they have the virus or not.”