Allegheny Jail reports first case of an incarcerated person with COVID-19; federal lawsuit also filed

By April 8, 2020 No Comments
Allegheny County Jail

The Allegheny County Jail. (Current Photo by Jake Mysliwczyk)

By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor

On the day it has been sued by three inmates over COVID-19 procedures, the Allegheny County Jail just announced that its first inmate has tested positive for COVID-19.

According to a press release:

“The Allegheny County Jail today announced an inmate has tested positive for COVID-19. That individual and cellmate have been quarantined since the onset of symptoms. Since early March, visitor restrictions have been in place at the facility. In late March, the facility began active screening for fever and respiratory symptoms in all staff and contractors as well as inmates and individuals coming into the facility at intake.  The jail continues to follow the guidance provided by the Allegheny County Health Department as it relates to the safety of employees and inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic. As with all COVID-19 cases, contact tracing will occur and additional precautionary screenings will be conducted for all inmates who had been housed on the same unit as the individual testing positive. Physical distancing continues to be stressed to employees and inmates across the facility. All pods are now on split recreation to reduce potential interactions.”

Allegheny County Councilor Bethany Hallam, also a member of the jail oversight board, reacted to the news by calling it, “the moment we had all been dreading and expecting”

“The Courts cannot continue their piecemeal and inadequate approach to tackling the very real threat this pandemic represents for our incarcerated community members, jail staff, and the entire region,” Hallam said. “They must act now to immediately release all those held on cash bail, those alleged to have committed a technical probation or parole violation, and those alleged to have violated probation or parole by committing a misdemeanor and/or non-violent offense. Any more delay will cost lives.”

In other news, three individuals currently incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail have filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Allegheny County, the county jail and Warden Orlando Harper “seeking relief from the dangerous conditions putting them and others at risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus and the disease COVID-19.”

More than 600 inmates have been released in the past several weeks making more room in the facility. But rather than spreading individuals out, jail officials, as the Current reported yesterday, they were actually packed closer together. The lawsuit notes that inmates have bee 

“When the prime directive for protecting public health and limiting the risk of transmission of COVID-19 is social distancing, the decision of Warden Harper to increase population density inside the jail defies belief,” said Bret Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center. “It is reckless and will result in higher infection rates and deaths in the jail and throughout the county unless there is immediate judicial intervention.”

The three plaintiffs are all incarcerated at the jail and all have serious medical problems that make them high risk for COVID-19, including Asthma, hypertension and Hepatitis-C.

According to the lawsuit: “Notwithstanding a population reduction of approximately 600 people in the last month from ACJ and the limited measures that Allegheny County has taken to prevent the introduction of COVID-19, immediate release of the medically vulnerable population remains a necessary public health intervention. Petitioners/Plaintiffs are at an increased risk of developing serious complications from coronavirus infection and COVID-19 due to their underlying medical conditions. Release is needed not only to prevent irreparable harm to members of the medically vulnerable subclass, but also to reduce the incarcerated population at ACJ sufficiently to ensure proper social distancing, which will reduce the likelihood of infection for all class members and the wider public.”

”Our clients are at heightened risk because of their underlying health conditions,” said Sara Rose, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “The leadership at the jail has been utterly irresponsible and has failed to protect them. We need the court to intervene to guarantee our clients’ rights and their safety.”

The lawsuit seeks to represent all people who are currently and will be held at the Allegheny County Jail during the COVID-19 crisis, including those who are considered high risk for contracting COVID-19 due to age, medical condition, or disability. The plaintiffs have asked the court to order their release and the release of people in the jail who are medically vulnerable. In addition, the lawsuit requests that the court order Harper to implement practices in the jail that are consistent with CDC guidelines, according to a press release.

According to the lawsuit, which you can read below, “Even in the best of times, ACJ, like many urban detention facilities, is beset with health problems and staffing challenges. Ominously, however, officials there have exacerbated and increased the risks to the health and life of class members during the current pandemic by maintaining unconstitutional conditions of confinement that will increase the risk of class members contracting COVID-19.

“More than 600 detainees have been released from the Allegheny County Jail over the past month in recognition that coronavirus and COVID-19 pose significant risks in a jail. But Defendants-Respondents have not taken advantage of that release to implement social distancing recommendations to keep detainees at least six feet apart. Remarkably, they have done just the opposite. Failing to heed the unanimous recommendations of public health experts, DefendantsRespondents have actually consolidated the remaining incarcerated population by moving them closer together.”

The lawsuit is also critical of jail staffing, which has been reduced because there are now fewer individuals in lockup. The lawsuit also alleges that the jail population has not been properly brief on the virus. Two of the plaintiffs, according to the lawsuit said they never heard the term social-distancing before meeting with lawyers.

“ACJ staff also have not provided basic but critical information or education to the incarcerated population about COVID-19.73 Indeed, no staff even informed the incarcerated population about COVID-19 until March 31st or April 1st. 74 These belated communications did not include any medical information for the population about COVID-19, its symptoms, the reason for social distancing (or even what the term means), the need to increase personal hygiene, the fact that people can be asymptomatic carriers, or the importance of reporting symptoms consistent with COVID-19 as soon as they are experienced.”

The media, elected officials and advocates for incarcerated persons have continually asked what the jail’s procedures were during COVID-19. That information has not been provided, however, the Current obtained a copy of the procedures yesterday, which you can read in its entirety here. 

Other issues mentioned in the lawsuit include no mandatory use of masks by guards and inmates, a lack of cleaning supplies, the rationing of toilet paper and no social distancing requirement, even in situations where it might be possible, like common areas. The lawsuit also sights a real fear that the jail’s medical staff will become overwhelmed in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak.

According to the lawsuit: “ACJ medical services are woefully inadequate to address a significant COVID-19 outbreak at the jail. As of February 26, 2020, the jail had 48 health care vacancies out of an expected health care staff of approximately 136 full and part-time positions. 90 That means around one-third of all health care positions at the jail are vacant, though the situation may be even worse due to the substantial number of leadership and full-time positions that are vacant. These vacancies include the Health Services Administrator, the Director of Nursing, 6 full time Licensed Practical Nurses (LPN); 2 part-time LPNs; 4 full-time Medical Assistants; 3 part-time Medical Assistants; 6 full-time Registered Nurses; 8 part-time Registered Nurses; 2 full-time Assistant Directors of Nursing; 2 full-time Administrative Assistants…. This shortage of medical staff results in often delayed medical care at the jail… Given the near insurmountable burden that COVID-19 has placed on healthcare systems across the world, there is a near-certain risk that ACJ’s under-resourced healthcare staff will be overwhelmed by COVID-19.”

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This story was made possible through a grant from the Facebook Journalism Project, the Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the Local Media Association.

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