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Critics worry Allegheny County Jail lockdown may have violated ban on solitary confinement

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

The Allegheny County Jail was on a full-facility lockdown for the entire month of March, jail officials said at an oversight board meeting on Thursday. But critics say this may have violated voter-approved limits on the use of solitary confinement.

All 1,666 people at the Allegheny County jail were on full-facility lockdown from Mar. 1 through Mar. 31, jail officials said.

During the lockdown, all 1,666 incarcerated individuals had “limited time out-of-cell. Some worry this may have violated a 2021 referendum to end the use of solitary confinement at the jail and ensure that people get at least four hours of recreation time per day.

The referendum does allow a few exceptions to the use of solitary confinement. A person can be held in solitary confinement for up to 24 hours if a medical professional certifies that their confinement is necessary “for medical reasons or to ensure the safety of others.”

The warden can place the jail on a facility-wide lockdown if it’s “required to ensure the safety of persons held in the facility.” In this case, the warden must document why the lockdown must last more than 24 hours and why less restrictive measures cannot accomplish the same goal.

In themonthly report to the oversight board, jail officials wrote that the reason for the lockdown was “medical.”

“The modified lockdown was a heightened mitigation measure used in the facility to limit the spread of COVID in the facility,” the report reads.

On Mar. 31, there was one positive case of COVID-19 reported in the Allegheny County Jail. No housing units were isolated or quarantined, and no employees reported a positive case of COVID-19

“I read the report, and I didn’t see specific reasons why the lockdown was necessary—especially not for the entire month, the entire jail,” Allegheny County Councilor Bethany Hallam, who serves on the jail's oversight board, said at the Thursday meeting. “Also, what less restrictive interventions [did] you try to do but were inefficient to accomplishing your safety goals?”

Warden Orlando Harper disagreed with Hallam.

“It specifically says medical reasons is why,” he said.

According to Harper, the jail was having “issues with COVID” at the beginning of the month. They increased the number of incarcerated people out of the cell at one time from 10 to 15. They also tried split recreation with 20 to 30 people out at once, but they still did not get the four hours of out-of-cell time required by the referendum.

Hallam criticized his response and said that “medical” was not specific.

“You also understand that if a person is in their cell with another person and they’re locked down, that still counts as solitary confinement?” she asked Harper.

Harper maintained that he did not violate the referendum because none of the incarcerated people were held in a cell alone.

“I’m following the letter of the referendum,” Harper said. “The referendum says, ‘an inmate,’ singular, in the cell.”

“It’s talking about no one person can be held in solitary confinement. It doesn’t say it means they have to be by themselves for it to be solitary,” Hallam said.

A January report from jail officials found that44 people were held in isolation in Allegheny County Jail that month. The jail was on a facility-wide lockdown for most of the month in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19.

In December, 294 inmates were isolated.

“Am I the only person that sees that the report on the solitary confinement ban that is given to us every month does not follow the letter of the law? It seems very clear,” Hallam said.

Hallam introduced a motion, which was approved by the board, for jail officials to present the board with a legal report evaluating whether or not Harper’s practices comply with the referendum.

The legal report will be shared with the oversight board at the next meeting on May 5.

Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at