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Allegheny County Jail could be violating solitary referendum, says legal opinion

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Concern about Allegheny County Jail’s use of solitary confinement continued at a jail oversight board meeting on Thursday. A legal opinion presented to the board suggests the jail is violating a voter-approved referendum meant to limit the use of solitary confinement.

Some board members and concerned residents have been raising alarms about the jail’s ongoing use of solitary confinementfor over a year.

Warden Orlando Harper has maintained that the jail is in compliance with the referendum.

The 2021 referendum defines solitary as keeping a person in a cell or other living space for more than 20 hours a day. People are supposed to get at least four hours out of their cells each day.

There are some exceptions to the rule. People can be held in solitary confinement for up to 24 hours “for medical reasons or to ensure the safety of others.” The warden can also place the jail on lockdown if it’s “required to ensure the safety of persons held in the facility.” The warden is required to document why isolation is necessary and why less restrictive measures can’t be implemented.

Oversight board member Bethany Hallam said she repeatedly asked jail officials to provide a legal opinion about their use of solitary confinement. Hallam has been a vocal critic of the jail’s use of solitary confinement.

“I’ve waited months and asked over and over again for some sort of legal opinion backing up what the jail is alleging and didn’t get one,” she said.

Fellow oversight board member Judge Elliot Howsie said former county solicitor Andy Szefi gave the board a legal opinion about the jail’s solitary confinement practices when the board was in executive session. Hallam said she requested a legal opinion from the county solicitor but did not receive one.

Hallam, who is also a member of Allegheny County Council, asked county council solicitor Frederick Frank for a legal opinion on the matter and shared it with the board Thursday.

At past oversight board meetings, jail officials claimed they were not in violation of the referendum because more than one person may be held in a single cell for more than 20 hours a day, Hallam said. Frank’s opinion pointed to the legal practice where the singular includes the plural. Though the referendum refers to a singular “inmate” when discussing out-of-cell time, it applies to the plural “inmates,” Hallam said.

“Whether there are two people in a cell together… or 20 people in a cell together, confinement, not receiving four hours — at least — out of their cell each day, they are in solitary confinement and they need to be recorded and that practice needs to be stopped.”

According to the opinion, the partial lockdowns on individual pods that jail administrators often log in their monthly “segregated housing” reports would violate the referendum.

In the event of a facility-wide lockdown, the warden must document why the lockdown is necessary for more than 24 hours, why less restrictive options would not work and still try to ensure that incarcerated people still get hygiene and exercise.

“As the lockdowns are only partial, to be valid the ACJ would have to meet the other conditions for solitary confinement,” Hallam said, reading from the opinion.

The March segregated housing report notes that the jail was in full-facility lockdown on March 7 and a portion of March 14. Pods 3E, 4C, 4D, 1B, 8E, 4E, 3F, 6F, 3B, 2F and 2A 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 each day.

Hallam warned the board that these practices could make them vulnerable to lawsuits.

“Not just the warden himself, not just the county, but the members of this board who refuse to enforce this law that was passed,” she said.

Hallam also raised concerns that the board is violating state law by allowing County Executive Rich Fitzgerald to send a designee to oversight board meetings.

The law establishes that the county executive, sheriff, controller, an appointed court of common pleas judge and three citizen members will be on the board, as well as the president judge or their designee and the president of county council or their designee.

“Because the statute is very clear that the county council president and the president judge get a designee, that means that no one else does,” Hallam said. “That means the county executive does not get a designee.”

Howsie pointed out that both the county executive and sheriff have “routinely” sent representatives in their place to board meetings. He said Fitzgerald is “doing what has been done since day one.”

A spokesperson for the county executive declined to comment.

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