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Special Report: What it is like to live on the COVID-19 isolation unit at the Allegheny County Jail 

By February 23, 2021 No Comments

By Brittany Hailer
Pittsburgh Current Managing Editor
brittany@pittsburghcurrent.com

Terrell Leonard uses his body heat to warm the water in his cup. Huddled under a blanket, he brings the cup close. He can see his breath. Leonard is COVID-19 positive and incarcerated in the Allegheny County Jail. 

Leonard believes he contracted COVID-19 while he was on 2D, a housing unit, or pod, at the jail. He alleges that a correctional officer who worked his pod tested positive a couple days before he began experiencing symptoms on Jan 28th. Jail staff did not test him until Feb 8th. Leonard was transferred to 7D once positive. 

7D is a housing unit within the jail that houses COVID positive incarcerated persons, negative incarcerated persons, and incarcerated persons waiting to be transferred to somewhere else within the ACJ. At any given time there can be as many as 40 incarcerated persons housed on this unit. However, other housing units will be designated as “isolation” if there are COVID positive cases. 

According to jail quarantine policy obtained by the Pittsburgh Current, when an incarcerated person tests positive for COVID-19 they are transferred to 7D. 

“The warden needs to be addressed. What he’s doing there is torture.”

When Leonard tells his mother, Viveca Jones, about warming his cup, she cries. She can’t sleep. A Chaplain for the Department of Corrections for four years, Jones has worked to ensure that incarcerated persons are treated with dignity and respect. She worked at State Correctional Institute Greene, visiting and praying with men on death row. “They were so protective of me,” she said. When she retired because of rheumatoid arthritis, the men waiting to die told her it was OK to go. They’d miss her, but she was hurting. It was time to retire. She needed to spend time with family. 

Now, Jones paces her home in Natrona Heights while her son “freezes.” She called Warden Orlando Harper, and asked why Leonard wasn’t receiving medications like tylenol and ibuprofen. Jones wanted to know why the doctor hadn’t visited him, yet. Jones says that a nurse comes to see her son twice a day to take his temperature. She says the day after she called the warden, the doctor finally came to see her son.

Dr. William Johnjulio of Allegheny Health Network confirmed that COVID-19 symptoms at the jail are managed through acetaminophen. “Treatment and medications are indicated based on the individualized assessment of the patient and determinations made by the clinician. For those patients who have been symptomatic, many have had mild symptom presentation. To manage common symptoms of COVID-19 such as fever, medications such as acetaminophen are administered,” he wrote. 

Jones said she told the warden that her son was cold. She said the heat wasn’t working in the jail. She told Harper about the cup of water and how her son had to warm it with his chest and hands so he’d have something to soothe his throat. At least give my son a second blanket, Jones pleaded.

And then, Chaplain Jones told Warden Harper this: “I am going to pray for you because you’re going to need it when your turn comes. You’re also going to need mercy one day. We all need it one day.” 

Jones and Leonard say that those infected with the virus are not provided special commissary–like hot drinks or soup–while symptomatic with the virus.  Incarcerated persons have to pay for things like orange juice or tea. Leonard tried to buy orange juice for the vitamin C, but the jail didn’t have any in stock. So he purchased tea. Which he had to heat up with his hands.

Harper wrote in response to The Current that incarcerated persons are still able to receive commissary when positive for COVID-19.“There is no additional diet consideration. Some have been ordered bottled water to monitor their fluid intake,” he wrote. Harper denies that incarcerated persons do not have access to hot water in the jail. 

Jones and Leonard also allege that incarcerated persons must buy their own cleaning products if they want to disinfect their cell. Jones worries that incarcerated persons will get re-infected because her son has not witnessed a cleaning procedure and because she says the jail is so poorly ventilated. 

According to ACJ policy, when the positive incarcerated person is transferred out of the cell to 7D, they carry all for their property, including unwashed blankets and their mattress into quarantine. Once on 7D, COVID positive incarcerated persons leave their cells, walk to the shower area under supervision of jail staff, shower together for 15 minutes, then walk back to their cell. 

All incarcerated persons on quarantine should shower three times a week, according to policy. Incarcerated persons who have tested positive for COVID-19 shower on opposite days of incarcerated persons who tested negative. 

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.

According to a sworn statement by an incarcerated person at the ACJ, “While on 7D we were forced to wear the same soiled clothes for days. We rarely had a shower, and we weren’t given enough soap to wash ourselves, even though we often had to throw out trash with our bare hands. The conditions were horrible on 7D. We weren’t allowed to call our friends or family. We weren’t allowed to send or receive mail. We were denied commissary and access to the law box.  Deputy Chief of Healthcare Services Laura Williams did not wear all the proper PPE when she visited with infected people on pod 7D. Although, I had tested negative for COVID-19, Deputy Chief Williams told me that I would stay on the pod with all the infected people no matter what.” 

Devon Mims-Carter says that he, too, contracted COVID-19 from a correctional officer. He lost his sense of taste and smell. He was moved to quarantine with other positive incarcerated persons. Mims-Carter says that incarcerated persons who are currently quarantined are being released back to the public while COVID positive.  But he also says he was denied showers. 

“They put us in quarantine–but they didn’t let us in the showers for four days,” Mims-Carter said, “They didn’t let us wash our clothes, they didn’t let us wash our blankets. They didn’t let me get a new mask.” 

According to Leonard, “There were many inmates like myself who were scared to report our symptoms or ask to be tested because we had heard how badly infected inmates were treated on 7D. Our fears about 7D were proven true after many of us were transferred to that pod…To date, no one from ACJ or the Allegheny Health Department has asked me who I have been in contact with even though I tested positive for COVID-19. I fear for my health and life if I remain at ACJ.”

Jones continues to worry for her son’s well being. She feels Leonard will be infected again due to lack of testing and social distancing at the jail. 

“The warden needs to be addressed,” she said, “What he’s doing there is torture. And they’re not telling anybody who is sick. And they’re leaving them up there to die.”  

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