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County jail lockdowns in December could violate solitary confinement ban, some worry

90.5 WESA

Allegheny County Jail was on full-facility, modified lockdown for part of December, according to jail officials’monthly report to the jail oversight board.

From Dec. 1 to Dec. 11, people incarcerated at the jail received limited out-of-cell time. Modified lockdown has been used to limit the spread of COVID-19 at the jail since the start of the pandemic. Incarcerated people were given split recreation for the duration of the lockdown; only half of the people held in each unit were allowed out during rec time.

The December report lists the reason for the lockdown “Medical, COVID mitigation.” It also states that, as of Jan. 1, four people incarcerated in the facility were positive for COVID, out of a full population of 1,370.

All pods were on lockdown again on Dec. 14, 16, 29 and 31 for “safety and security.” From Dec. 19 through Dec. 26, incarcerated people weren’t given outdoor recreation time because of potentially dangerous weather conditions.

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“These dates are noted as pod lockdowns due to the inability to safely provide full recreation opportunities on the restricted housing units,” the report reads. “This experience has prompted the jail leadership to begin to explore opportunities to provide additional indoor recreational spaces so that individuals can safely recreate on the restricted housing units during the coldest times of the year.”

People on pods 5F, 3E, 2C, 5D, 4F, 3B and 3F experienced additional lockdown days throughout the month for “safety and security” reasons. During the lockdowns, not everyone received at least four hours of out-of-cell time a day.

Some people “were segregated for their own safety as determined necessary by the jail administration, and there was not sufficient time on those days to provide a full four (4) hours of out of cell time without restricting the out of cell time of others on the pod for whom such restriction was not necessary,” the report said.

Some members of the county’s jail oversight board have raised concerns about the facility-wide lockdowns in the past, noting that they couldpotentially violate a voter-approved referendum banning the use of solitary confinement.

The referendum defines solitary confinement as keeping someone in a cell for more than 20 hours a day. The referendum does allow solitary confinement for medical emergencies. 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.”

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