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275 Allegheny County Jail Inmates Were Held In Solitary Confinement Last Month, Officials Say

Mark Nootbaar
90.5 WESA
A recently passed ballot measure required Allegheny County Jail officials to release their first report on solitary confinement July 7, 2021.

Nearly 300 people were held in isolation at Allegheny County Jail in June, according to the facility’s first monthly report on the lock-ups.

Jail officials were required to release the report last week under a ballot measure that county voters passed in May. The initiative also limits the use of solitary confinement, but that policy is not set to take effect until December.

The newly released data shows that in June, 275 people had been isolated in “segregated housing units" at the jail. That's about one-sixth of the jail's current population of roughly 1,700.

The typical commitment lasted 11 days, the report said, though one person has spent nearly two years in isolation, and another almost a year. Officials say those individuals face mental health challenges and had refused to leave their segregated units.

In every instance, the report said, safety concerns prompted the use of solitary confinement.

But Abolitionist Law Center staff attorney Jaclyn Kurin said isolation itself poses serious threats to incarcerated people, especially those who struggle with mental illness.

“Science has already confirmed that being held in solitary confinement for even 15 days can have irreversible health effects,” Kurin said. “People are social animals … and there [have] been a number of studies showing how we need meaningful social interaction with other people. But that is in direct opposition to all the restrictions placed in solitary confinement.”

Of those who were released from isolation during the month of June, more than two dozen later returned at least once, according to the report.

About two-thirds of the segregated population was Black, and the remainder was mostly white. Overall, the duration of solitary confinement hardly differed between racial groups.

The median age of those held in solitary was 30, although at least one 17-year-old had also been placed in isolation, the data shows.

Males accounted for 80 percent of segregated housing unit commitments in June.

Separately, the report also showed that after being booked at the jail, 63 people had been confined to restricted cells for more than 20 hours while they awaited pretrial services and other processing.

Kurin said that, if anything, the report understates the restrictions on prisoners because, she said, COVID-19 policies have effectively put the entire facility on lockdown since March 2020.

The jail has been confining at-risk inmates to their cells for 23 hours a day to limit the spread of the disease. And while the ballot question was widely spoken of as a ban on solitary confinement, it defines the practice as keeping someone in a cell for more than 20 hours a day — whether the cell is shared or not.

A third of the jail population had been fully vaccinated by early July. Deputy warden Laura Williams said that restrictions have been loosened on many housing units because they've achieved higher vaccination rates.

Earlier this month, jail warden Orlando Harper told the county’s Jail Oversight Board that his staff is developing a plan to “get individuals off this 23-hour lock-up” caused by COVID-19.

But, he noted, “We still have to worry about people that are not vaccinated contracting this disease.”

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at aherring@wesa.fm.
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