By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
The voice on the other end of the line was frustrated, scared and pissed off.
The man lives at Renewal Inc. on Third Avenue, Downtown near the Allegheny County Jail. It’s a facility that contracts with the county and the state to house offenders in diversionary programs for drug and alcohol treatment. It’s also a place where inmates can go after they are released from prison for a place to live and a chance to re-enter the community.
A lot of the residents have jobs, like one of the guys who called me last week. He’s got a job and has been going to work faithfully. Well, until five other people in his unit were diagnosed with COVID-19. The virus was detected only after a resident was transferred to a state institution, where testing is mandatory on all new inmates. There is no universal testing program for county detainees at either alternate detention facilities or the Allegheny County Jail. Last month, the jail’s entire inmate kitchen staff was exposed to a positive individual whose virus was only detected when he went to a state facility.
The Renewal resident says all potentially exposed inmates were tested and given a two-week quarantine and then tested. Five inmates tested positive and the quarantine was extended another two weeks followed by retesting. Based on the current timeline, the resident, who asked for anonymity, will likely miss six weeks of work. And that’s only if he doesn’t catch the virus in the meantime.
“The guys who are sick now, they’re not really isolated from us,” the resident said. They can leave their rooms, they come down to the vending machines where we are. Right now, we’re just sitting around waiting to get sick.
“I’m trying to get my life back together and if I miss six weeks of work or more, I’m going to lose that job. But it doesn’t seem like anyone is taking it seriously.”
The resident’s account of things was independently verified by other sources.
To be clear, it’s not just Renewal. It’s just renewal’s turn. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, inmates in Allegheny County haven’t received proper treatment. I’ve talked to dozens of sources since March inside the jail and with knowledge of jail operations and one fact is abundantly clear: the jail was not ready for COVID-19 and did little to fix the situation as it unfolded.
Don’t get me wrong, a lot of people at the top of the jail’s hierarchy have said a lot of things to try and dismiss the concerns of inmates, their families and a small determined group of advocates and public officials. They act offended when the suggestion is even made that there may be problems inside the facility. They brush off concerns that they’re not being transparent about their procedures and their mitigation efforts. But I have talked to scores of people who all tell the same stories and voice the same concerns. COVID-19 has been and is being mismanaged in our correctional facilities and no one with the power to fix it seems to give a damn.
I have heard terrible stories from inmates who aren’t receiving enough to eat, who are isolated from their friends and families because visitation is suspended and phone calls will cost you a king’s ransom just to say hello to your spouse, parents or kids. The public has been misled about a lot of the jail’s COVID-19 response. The timeline we produced earlier this year outlines a great deal of it and we have written story after story about what’s going on. But still, those in power to do something about it, do nothing. Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner and Allegheny County Councilors Bethany Hallam and Liv Bennett have been on the front lines of this fight, trying to make a difference, to improve transparency and push for universal testing because 20 percent of people are likely asymptomatic carriers of the disease.
However, they have been thwarted at every turn. Instead, county officials and members of the jail’s administration team are going to need Tommy John surgery at some point because they’re going to seriously injure themselves by patting themselves on the back. They tout the couple of thousand inmates they released early to lessen the spread of COVID-19, but those numbers are a smokescreen. Throughout this whole situation, the jail’s average daily population has only decreased by at most, 500 or 600 inmates and the jail’s population has been steadily rising since May.
Meanwhile, inmates and employees are constantly at risk and their requests to make the workplace safer for everyone have been ignored. It’s easy for people to start making ridiculous statements about “make them serve their time,” but the majority of people being held in the jail haven’t been convicted of anything. In a lot of cases, they just can’t make cash bail before trial; it’s the worst kind of poor tax.
The saddest thing to me, though, is that there should be greater outrage about the way these people have been treated, or not treated in a lot of cases. If dogs in an animal shelter were treated like this, thousands would riot in the streets. But they’re not cute, little puppies. They’re flawed human beings caught in a system that’s making them face a potential death sentence thanks to COVID-19 for alleged infractions in some cases that amount to the seriousness of shoplifting, or less.
And why does this continue?
Because the general public is so quick to blame inmates for the position they’re in without looking at the totality of the circumstances.
Because in a city with a robust media population, this publication is the only one covering the issue on a regular basis.
And because the jail has leaders like Warden Orlando Harper and Laura Williams, the chief deputy warden for healthcare services, that are too arrogant to listen to a suggestion that didn’t come out of their own mouths first. Two people that I don’t think I’d want running a dog pound, let alone a jail.
Although like I said, if we were dealing with the treatment of puppies, the public-at-large might finally hold them accountable.