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Class-Action Lawsuit Alleges Abuse Of Allegheny County Jail Inmates With Psychiatric Disabilities

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
There were 1,757 people incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail Tuesday, Sept. 15, according to county data.

After nearly two years of evidence-gathering and hundreds of interviews with people who have been held at the Allegheny County Jail, civil rights lawyers have sued the county and jail officials for the alleged mistreatment of inmates with psychiatric disabilities.

“The mental health care system at the Allegheny County Jail … is rife with systemic deficiencies that deprive people with psychiatric disabilities of necessary care, and indeed, make their conditions worse,” the federal class-action lawsuit contends.

The complaint, filed Tuesday, outlines a litany of alleged abuses, including the purported denial of mental-health treatment to incarcerated people, and the mismanagement of inmates’ psychiatric medications. The suit contends that inmates who request treatment, or whose psychiatric conditions lead them to resist orders from corrections officers, are often pepper-sprayed, strapped to restraint chairs, or banished to solitary confinement.

The Abolitionist Law Center and other local attorneys represent five named plaintiffs in the suit. While some of the plaintiffs have been held at the jail for several years, they all have yet to go to trial. Their disabilities include depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and bipolar disorder, according to the legal complaint.

Keith Whitson, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said they brought Tuesday’s suit “to get the attention … of the jail officials.”

The issues the filing raises, Whitson continued, “have actually been raised with jail counsel and the county for a number of years in individual cases. So they are very well aware of the issues … involved in the case. And they have not been able to make the corrections despite knowing of some of these issues.”

A county spokesperson declined to comment on pending litigation.

In addition to the county, the defendants named include the jail’s chief deputy warden of healthcare services, Laura Williams, jail warden Orlando Harper, and the institution’s mental health director, Michael Barfield. The plaintiffs fault them for failing to ensure the delivery of mental health services, and for allowing the unreasonable use of force against inmates with psychiatric disabilities. The lawsuit says inadequate staffing and training are largely to blame, and it accuses the defendants of violating the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The suit asks a federal trial court to order county officials to revamp the jail's mental health care and disciplinary practices. It also requests that a judge monitor the jail until the defendants can show they have addressed the plaintiffs’ allegations.

An attorney for the Abolitionist Law Center, Jaclyn Kurin, said the lawsuit stems from a nearly two-year investigation. Kurin said she and other lawyers conducted hundreds of phone, video, and in-person interviews with people currently and formerly incarcerated at the jail.

“And there were a number of former employees of the jail who came forward, both health-care practitioners and correctional officers,” Kurin added. “And they confirmed what we were also hearing.”

Some of those reports included repeated instances in which people were forced to spend several hours without breaks in a restraint chair, facing a blank wall. One plaintiff, the lawsuit says, was strapped in the chair for 28 hours. On many occasions, people are held so long they urinate or defecate on themselves, according to the complaint.

Other times, the suit says, corrections officers have used stun guns and mace to subdue people who suffer from psychiatric disorders. Some inmates are put in solitary confinement for months at a time despite their fragile mental health, the complaint alleges.

The plaintiffs note that mental health issues are especially pressing in jail settings, where the incidence of mental health disorders is far higher than in the general population. The conditions of confinement, moreover, often exacerbate psychiatric disorders. In fact, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that the Allegheny County Jail had the second-highest suicide rate among the nation’s 50 largest jails between 2000 and 2007.

Another report from the bureau estimates that 44 percent of jail inmates have been told at some point by a mental health professional that they have a mental health disorder, with about a quarter believed to experience “serious psychological distress.” In the general population, the bureau says, such distress afflicts only about 5 percent of people.

Whitson, the plaintiff's lawyer, said he and his colleagues recently reached out to the county's Jail Oversight Board to seek help “in finding a solution and crafting a new mental health care program for the jail.” County Councilor Bethany Hallam and County Controller Chelsa Wagner, both Democrats and members of the board, have been vocal critics of jail administrators and the county executive’s office, which oversees management of the facility.