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Allegheny County Jail remains on lockdown as COVID-19 outbreak subsides

A referendum passed in spring 2021 limits solitary confinement at the Allegheny County Jail.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
A referendum passed in spring 2021 limits solitary confinement at the Allegheny County Jail takes effect Sunday.

In January, 44 people were held in isolation at the Allegheny County Jail, according to a new report by jail administrators. It's a striking decrease from what the jail reported for December, but the figure does not mean all other inmates receive the time out of their cells required by a referendum.

Last year, Allegheny County voters passed a measure that bans most uses of solitary confinement and requires at least four hours of recreation time per day. It forced the jail to change a facility-wide lockdown policy in December that had been in effect since the pandemic first arrived in the region in 2020.

The jail returned to a facility-wide lockdown for nearly the entire month of January. Officials said an increased rate of COVID-19 cases compelled them to modify recreation allowances in an attempt to manage the spread. During this time, "all incarcerated individuals experienced limited time out-of-cell," the report noted.

"The modified lockdown was a heightened mitigation measure used in the facility to limit the spread of COVID in the facility, particularly in light of the highly contagious and easily transmissible omicron variant," the report reads.

In a statement last week, jail officials said cases reached a high of 256 in early January but have since decreased to 82. Officials said they would reevaluate expanding recreation time this month. Until then, the lockdown remains in place.

Some worry the COVID-19 lockdown is making it difficult to know whether the jail is complying with the referendum, which requires inmates to get at least four hours per day of recreation time. Allegheny County Councilor Bethany Hallam, who serves on the jail's oversight board, said the jail should explore other practices before resorting to a lockdown.

"Where is that explanation? What else did you try?" she said, suggesting the jail spread the population out into unused pods and allow for more recreation time. "If they are so concerned about COVID mitigation… why are they collapsing pods instead of having incarcerated individuals more spread out throughout the jail?" The jail has been consolidating the number of pods used to house inmates over the last several months. Warden Orlando Harper has repeatedly declined to explain the move, arguing that disclosing the reasons behind it is a security risk.

But to some of the jail's staff, the answer is obvious: there isn't enough staff to manage more pods.

"We do have a staffing crisis right now," said Brian Englert, president of the Allegheny County Prison Employees Independent Union. "Instead of a hallway having four officers, which is required for officer safety and inmate safety, we have two officers."

Englert said the staffing shortage makes it difficult to manage the required recreation time for inmates and that things only got worse during the recent COVID-19 outbreak.

"We can't have officers getting quarantined," Englert said.

Jail officials reported 35 employees were either out sick with COVID or on quarantine as of Jan. 31.

If more officers get sick and have to isolate, Englert worries the remaining staff would be unable to keep up with the basic needs of the jail's population.

"If we're not there, [inmates are] not getting showers at all," Englert said. "There's no one to respond to a medical emergency. There's nobody to respond to a fight in a cell." According to the Allegheny County website, the jail is hiring 33 positions. There are 22 vacancies for registered nurses and medical assistants. The jail is also hiring correctional officers. According to Englert, more than 470 officers worked there when he began his job at the jail more than a decade ago. Now, he said there are fewer than 380 officers.

Two other lockdowns listed in the report took place on Jan. 1 and 2. The report does not detail why those lockdowns were necessary, and a jail spokesperson did not respond to requests for that information.

"The warden's decision to do so was required to ensure the safety and security of persons held in the facility," the report explains.

Jan. 3 is the only day the jail did not report a lockdown.

The report is the second issued by the jail about its use of solitary confinement, required by the referendum that took effect in December.

Last month, the jail reported 294 inmates experienced varying lengths of isolation at the lockup in December. The report listed the isolations as necessary for safety.

Officials later clarified that most inmates were isolated due to contracting or coming into contact with someone positive for COVID-19. They further explained that the numbers were inflated by including inmates who had refused recreation time or returned to their cell before their recreation period was over.

There are three exceptions to the ban on solitary confinement. A person can be held in solitary if they request protective custody, during a facility-wide lockdown or for 24 hours to evaluate whether a person should be isolated for medical reasons.

For 43 of the 44 individuals on isolation in January, the report lists the reason as "medical."

The Abolitionist Law Center, which advocates on behalf of inmates in jails and prisons across the country, claims the jail is misusing medical evaluations as a means to keep people in isolation.

"In its report, ACJ incorrectly states that this exception permits the jail to deny out-of-cell time to individuals determined to present a medical risk. ACJ's interpretation is 100% wrong," said Jacklyn Kurin, a staff attorney with the Abolitionist Law Center.

Kurin argued the interpretation sets a precedent that could harm individuals with mental health diagnoses.

"Under the ACJ's discriminatory and inhumane interpretation, the jail could keep individuals with psychiatric disabilities in solitary confinement indefinitely," she said, which she argues goes against the spirit of the referendum.

Hallam and other oversight board members argued last week during their regular meeting that the report needs to provide more transparency about why solitary confinement is used.

"I do think that there is some loose interpretation of this referendum that is happening," Tracy Royston, acting Allegheny County Controller and oversight board member, said.

Board members agreed to hold a private meeting with Harper to iron out which information should be included in reports moving forward. Hallam argued the report should more clearly indicate how an instance of isolation relates to one of the three exceptions of the referendum.

"The fact that they're using COVID as an excuse to keep the jail permanently locked down completely undermines the spirit of the solitary confinement ban," Hallam said. "They're doing this because there's a critical staffing shortage."

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.