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Jail board members, advocates raise concerns that jail is violating solitary confinement referendum

Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA

Some members of the Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board and other community members worry the jail could be in violation of a voter-approved referendumbanning the use of solitary confinement.

At a meeting on Thursday, Warden Orlando Harper said that due to COVID-19 mitigation efforts, a “majority” of people have not been receiving the four hours of recreation time mandated by law.

“For the last couple of months, the institution has been on split recreation. So therefore, nobody in the facility has been receiving four hours of out of cell time,” Harper told the board.

The referendum defines solitary confinement as keeping someone in a cell for more than 20 hours a day.

Chief deputy warden Jason Beasom said corrections officers get incarcerated people out of their cells “as much as [they] can.”

Board members raised similar concernsearlier in the pandemic, when the jail went on full facility lockdown in an effort to bring down the number of COVID cases. According to Dr. Ashley Brinkman, the jail’s health services administrator, three incarcerated people are currently positive for COVID.

Allegheny County Councilor Bethany Hallam, who serves on the jail's oversight board, said she is worried that some people held on the jail’s mental health pods may never have out of cell time. Jail medical personnel assign people on the mental health pods to a “tier” depending on their risk level. Those assigned to tier four are at risk of harming themselves or others. People are put on tier five if they have self-harmed or attempted suicide.

“Even when you’re not on split rec, people on tier four and five are not getting four hours out of their cell?” Hallam asked jail officials.

Brinkman said that the referendum does allow solitary confinement in the case of a medical emergency.

“We’re talking about somebody that, as a result of their medical crisis, they are not safe to be outside,” Brinkman said. “This would be similar to someone who is in Forbes Hospital under a 72-hour observation because of a 302 [involuntary admission to a psychiatric hospital].”

Hallam noted that any solitary confinement is meant to be short term, and said people held at the hospital are not confined to one room.

The referendum says 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.”

“I just very much want to make sure that we are not discriminating against people with mental health diagnoses and disabilities, and that is what it seems like the more and more I learn about these tiers,” Hallam said. “And now it’s seeming to overlap with the violation of the referendum, which we know has been going on since it was passed.”

Jail officials did not share how long people are typically kept on tiers four and five.

Officials said they did address a heating issue at the jail that began last weekend.

In a letter shared by the Abolitionist Law Center, more than 60 people on pod 3B said they went without heat for three days due to an issue with the heating system.

“There is no heat on the pod we have to wear double clothing to keep warm,”they wrote.

Harper said the problem was identified on Saturday and fixed by Tuesday. Officials gave the people on the pod extra suicide-prevention blankets but said that the temperatures didn’t warrant moving the group to an empty pod.

Erin Dalton, the director of the county’s department of human services told the board that the county is slowly moving towards implementing a plan that could drastically reduce the population of the jail.

This past summer, the county chose CDI Architects Group to re-think the jail facilities and bring the jail population down to between 500 and 1,000 people. As of Dec. 1, about 1,500 people wereheld at the jail.

MonWin Consulting and Falcon Correctional will also work on the project, to help include community voices and improve behavioral healthcare, respectively.

Dalton said the contractors plan to hold two listening sessions to get feedback.

“That includes people who are currently incarcerated, friends and family members of individuals who are incarcerated. And they’ll also talk with people who are serving folks in the jail—service providers and others,” she said.

All Allegheny County residents will also have a chance to fill out a survey to give their input.

After the planning process is over, the groups will present multiple different design options. Dalton estimated that will occur in late 2023.

And the board voted to reinstate a subcommittee to conduct exit interviews with people who quit jobs at the jail.

Allegheny County Jail has had difficulty hiring and retaining staff in recent years. The healthcare department is nearly 70 employees short.

In December 2020, the board voted to conduct exit interviews, but board member Judge Beth Lazzara said progress on an exit survey and exit interviews “got lost in the shuffle.”

“I think the board should know why people are leaving,” Lazzara said.

The board will meet again in January 2023.

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