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Allegheny County Jail reduces solitary confinement, but advocates say more must be done

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Statistics and advocates for incarcerated people both suggest that the use of solitary confinement at Allegheny County Jail has decreased markedly since a referendum restricting its use went into effect in 2021. But more than three years after voters approved that referendum, some advocates and community members allege the county has more work to do for the facility to fully comply with the law.

The 2021 referendum forbids jail officials from using solitary confinement as a punishment, and limits the practice in other circumstances. It defines solitary as detaining a person in a cell or other living space for more than 20 hours a day, and requires that incarcerated people get at least four hours out of their cells each day.

Voters overwhelmingly supported the measure, which sailed to victory in May 2021 after being championed by groups including the Alliance for Police Accountability, New Voices PGH, Pennsylvania United, and SEIU Healthcare PA.

Research from the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice found that the physical and social isolation required by solitary can lead to anxiety, depression, paranoia, and impulse-control issues, among others.

The jail “is not a place where people are meant to spend long periods of time,” said Kyna James, a coalition organizer for the Alliance for Police Accountability who worked on the campaign to pass the ballot measure. “Solitary confinement affects people. With over 70% of [those incarcerated] suffering from mental health issues, it was a huge concern of ours. So, our goal was that people don’t come out worse than they went in.”

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Signs of progress, and challenges ahead

It’s difficult to precisely gauge changes in how solitary confinement has been used in the jail, in part because officials have compiled those statistics differently over time. The county’s jail population dashboard only compiles yearly averages for the jail population, which makes tracking month-to-month changes challenging. But the numbers do suggest a reduction in the use of solitary confinement over time.

Jail data suggest that on average, 33 incarcerated people spent time in solitary confinement in the first six months of 2024. That’s compared to the 78 incarcerated people who spent time in solitary during the same period in 2023.

The average total number of days all incarcerated people spent in solitary also went down, from 182 days in a six month period of 2023 to 95 in the same period of 2024. (Numbers prior to 2023 are difficult to calculate because there was a facility-wide lockdown during much of 2022.)

Jaclyn Kurin, a staff attorney for the Abolitionist Law Center said the referendum has resulted in some additional success: it also banned the use of restraint chairs, chemical agents and leg shackles on incarcerated people.

But those gains are tempered by other restrictions sometimes imposed on those incarcerated.

According to the jail’s most recent housing report, the entire jail had eight partial-day lockdowns in June due to “safety and security” issues. And more than two dozen pods, each of which is made up of a small group of cells, were under full- or partial-day lockdowns over the course of the month.

Lockdowns too can be isolating, and for more than just a single prisoner, though jail reports don’t record the number of people affected by pod lockdowns.

The “overwhelming majority” of such lockdowns have been due to short staffing, said Bethany Hallam, a member of County Council and the Jail Oversight Board.

Such shortages are “not an excuse to lock down the jail,” she added. “They need to work to either rearrange housing units at the jail, or work with the courts in the county to decarcerate folks.”

Allegheny County Prison Employees Independent Union president Brian Englert agreed that the uptick in pod lockdowns is the result of short staffing.

“If there's a staffing-related issue, then yes, the facility will be on a modified or an institutional lockdown,” he said. Lockdowns might also happen due to equipment or elevator malfunctions, or if there are instances of violence or drug use.

Abigail Gardner, a spokesperson for County Executive Sara Innamorato, agreed that increasing staff numbers at the jail is a priority.

“To that end, the jail hired a Talent Acquisition Specialist to focus on hiring and recruitment for all positions, including corrections officers,” Gardner said in an email. “The jail has successfully increased average cadet class size and [has] already graduated 58 new officers this year, which is a substantial increase over the previous several years. We see that as a trend in the right direction.”

In the meantime, though, Hallam said that while the ballot question approved by voters does permit a facility-wide lockdown if it’s “required to ensure the safety of persons held in the facility,” pod-level lockdowns are not permitted.

Jail administrators have said the pod lockdowns are less restrictive than buttoning up the entire facility.

“Instead of locking down an entire facility, we lock down a specific area of the jail as a less intrusive measure,” Chief Deputy Warden Jason Beasom said at an oversight board meeting last month. That, he added, served “to let everybody else that’s not affected by that lockdown allowed out of cell time,”

A lack of transparency?

Englert said the referendum has made it more difficult for current staff to do their jobs, in part by barring the use of restraint chairs that guards previously used to immobilize violent prisoners.

“The restraint chair was a great tool,” he said. And while he acknowledged that “you had one or two staff members that didn't follow the rules … the main purpose of the restraint chair is to calm somebody down, prevent them from harming themselves or others.”

And he said the law leaves COs with “no real punishment” options when an incarcerated person violates the rules.

There are exceptions to the rule banning solitary. The referendum allows people to be held in solitary confinement for up to 24 hours “for medical reasons or to ensure the safety of others.” But officials must document why confinement is necessary and explain why less restrictive measures can’t be implemented.

Activists complain that the monthly reports required by the referendum give insufficient reasons as to why a particular lockdown or use of solitary confinement is necessary.

“How can I, as a jail oversight board member, do my job and make the jail safer if I don't have any details about what the issues are?” Hallam asked.

Recent reports most often list the reason an individual is held in solitary as “medical,” meaning a healthcare employee at the jail has determined that “the person’s confinement is necessary for medical reasons or to ensure the safety of others. That is allowed under the referendum.

Jesse Geleynse, a spokesperson for the jail, did not directly respond when asked if jail administrators consider lockdowns to be solitary confinement. He did note that lockdowns are reported monthly on the segregated housing report required by the referendum.

Geleynse said jail administrators believe the facility is in compliance with the referendum.

Not everyone agrees.

“This is the law that is written by the people and voted on by the people, and for the jail not to comply with the law is … disenfranchising all those voters and their intent. And their intent was to abolish solitary confinement,” said Kurin, of the Abolitionist Law Center.

But advocates say they expect Innamorato to continue the reforms.

James, the Alliance for Police Accountability organizer, said that with a new county executive, an ongoing search for a new jail warden, and the advocacy of Hallam and others, she can see a path towards change for the first time in years.

“This administration is currently trying to clean up a decades-long mess,” James said. “I think that they are trying to comply.”

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