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Ballot Measure Seeks To Curb Solitary Confinement At Allegheny County Jail

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
A question on the May 18 primary ballot would largely end the use of solitary confinement at the Allegheny County Jail.

Solitary confinement will be on the ballot in Allegheny County’s primary election May 18, with voters of any party affiliation having a say on whether to restrict when the county jail can use the practice.

A countywide ballot initiative defines solitary confinement as keeping someone in a cell or other living space for more than 20 hours a day. The measure would prohibit staff at Allegheny County Jail from imposing such isolation, except during facility-wide lockdowns and when an incarcerated person poses a safety threat. But even in those cases, the warden would need to document why isolation is necessary.

County officials would not take a position on the ballot question, but jail spokesperson Garrett Conti said that jail employees do not use solitary confinement as punishment. Instead, Conti wrote in a statement, staff members use “a similar measure of segregation … for incarcerated individuals who may be a threat to themselves or others, who may be at risk from others, or [when] necessary for the orderly operation of the facility.”

“Those in segregation, with few exceptions, continue to have access to tablets, phone calls … visits, commissary, medical and other services, just as they would on any other housing unit,” Conti said.

But Brandi Fisher, the president and CEO of the Alliance for Police Accountability and a leading proponent of the ballot initiative, called Conti’s statement a “bald-faced lie.” She said that people who have been incarcerated at the county lockdown have shared accounts of being forced into isolation after exhibiting symptoms of psychiatric disabilities. Some who have been held in solitary confinement, Fisher said, were detained for days without food.

And the jail’s current segregation policy, she added, can amount to discipline for minor infractions.

"The county is using solitary confinement as a form of punishment for the breaking of a rule, for not following a direction, for not doing something you were supposed to do, or because you talk back to a correctional officer and they didn't like it,” Fisher said.

She noted that prolonged solitary confinement is known to have traumatic effects on the brain, especially for people with mental health conditions. Last fall, prisoner-rights advocates sued the county and jail officials for allegedly using solitary confinement to punish inmates who suffer from mental illness.

Because solitary confinement “exacerbates” those conditions, Fisher said, “people are coming out of Allegheny County jail worse than they had gone in.”

In addition to restricting the use of solitary confinement, the ballot measure would require the jail warden to produce monthly reports on instances when the practice is employed.

The measure would permit isolation during facility-wide lockdowns and emergencies where an inmate threatens the safety of others or seeks to be isolated to protect their own safety. In each of those cases, the jail warden would need to document why isolation is necessary, and inmates would be required to receive at least four hours of out-of-cell time each day.

Licensed professionals would also need to perform medical and mental health examinations to determine whether isolation is necessary and what conditions are needed to prevent the confined person from experiencing physical and psychological harm.

Voluntary confinement would be limited to 72 hours, during which time jail staff would need to arrange for less restrictive conditions that ensure the inmate’s safety.

Although the question will appear on the primary ballot, voters of any political party may vote on it.