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Nearly 300 Allegheny County Jail inmates held in isolation as solitary confinement ban takes effect

The Allegheny County Jail could face a worsening staff shortage as a result of a county employee vaccine mandate.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
The Allegheny County Jail could face a worsening staff shortage as a result of a county employee vaccine mandate.

Nearly 300 inmates in the Allegheny County Jail spent more than 20 hours a day alone in their cells in December — the same month that a near-total ban on solitary was scheduled to go into effect.

A report compiled by jail officials shows 294 people were held in “segregated housing” during the month of December. Of those, 30 people were confined for the entire month. Another seven were isolated for 30 days.

At a meeting of the jail’s oversight board Thursday, Warden Orlando Harper argued that the facility is in compliance with a ban on most forms of solitary confinement that voters passed overwhelmingly last spring.

“We don’t have solitary confinement at all in our jail,” he said. Instead, he contended, inmates held in isolation are considered to be in “segregated housing.”

But the difference between the two concepts appears murky.

The jail report defines segregated housing as an inmate being “confined to a cell alone in a segregated housing unit for an aggregate of at least 20 hours within the day.” The referendum that was put before voters defines — and generally prohibits — solitary confinement as "the confinement of a detainee or inmate in a cell or other living space for more than 20 hours a day."

The ban on solitary requires jail officials to give every individual four hours of recreation time. It also forbids confining a person to a cell for more than 20 hours a day.

Advocates for the incarcerated claim administrators are manipulating the referendum's language. Jaclyn Kurin, a staff attorney with the Abolitionist Law Center, claims people have been given solitary confinement for reasons far outside the exceptions listed in the referendum.

“Incarcerated individuals have reported that their rec time was denied for non-safety reasons, such as a person not wearing a mask properly, an elevator not working, and a person screaming for medical attention,” she said.

Under the referendum, there are three exceptions in which solitary can be used: in case of a facility-wide lockdown; an emergency use to assess whether a person needs to be isolated for medical or safety reasons; or to arrange housing for a person in protective custody.

In all instances of solitary confinement reported by the jail for December, "safety" is the reason listed. The report does not provide further detail.

“Clearly, the jail administration needs more education about the requirements of the solitary confinement ban and exceptions to it," said Kurin. "Warden Harper’s monthly solitary confinement reports demonstrate that the jail continues to deny individuals their out-of-cell time for an unspecified ‘safety’ reason, which is not an exception to the law."

During Thursday’s meeting, Allegheny County Councilor Bethany Hallam asked for more information about those isolated in December. She said "safety" doesn’t go far enough to describe why isolation was necessary. Harper agreed to provide the information at the board’s next meeting.

Harper argued the referendum allows the Warden discretion in determining when it’s necessary to assign a person to a segregated housing pod. The language of the referendum also requires a mental and medical health evaluation during which medical personnel are to determine confinement is necessary. Harper did not say whether those evaluations were performed for the 294 people in the report.

Hallam and Harper also traded words over the jail’s use of projectile shotguns to fire less-lethal munitions. Hallam accused Harper of violating a motion the board passed in September, which barred "bringing into the jail any shotguns" or munitions. That was part of the board's move to ban a controversial trainer from the facility in September.

Harper argued that he complied with the order not to bring in shotguns, because the shotguns had already been purchased and brought in before the board's action. And he said the jail hired a different company, Safariland, to train staff in the weapons' use.

Acting Allegheny County Controller Tracy Royston, who serves on the board, said the Warden’s comments concerned her.

“The referendum is being interpreted ... very loosely," she told WESA. "And it’s being interpreted in a way to do the least amount possible to address the public’s concern."

Royston replaced former Controller Chelsa Wagner, who had been a vocal critic of jail administrators, on the oversight board when Wagner became a Common Pleas Judge. But Royston was unable to attend the meeting in person, or to voice her concerns in public: The board resumed in-person meetings for the first time this month, and its new head, Common Pleas Judge Eliott Howsie, said members would be unable to call in.

None of the remaining board members spoke during the meeting about how Harper was interpreting its directives, or the referendum. But the Alliance for Police Accountability, which advocated for the referendum, issued a statement demanding more transparency from jail officials.

APA President Brandi Fisher said complying with the referendum should be a top priority.

“We fought for more than words on a paper,” she said. “We fought for the rights of community members in the jail to not be tortured with solitary confinement.”

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.