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Female Ex-Inmates Allege Excessive Force At Allegheny County Jail

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
The Allegheny County Jail in downtown Pittsburgh.

An Allegheny County Jail sergeant used excessive force on three female former inmates, one of whom was pregnant, with psychiatric disabilities, according to a federal lawsuit.

The women, April Walker, LaVonna Dorsey and Alexus Diggs, filed the lawsuit Tuesday against Sgt. John Raible, the jail's warden, deputy wardens, a captain and Allegheny County. The complaint alleges Raible had a history of assaulting inmates, including using pepper spray on inmates with psychiatric disabilities and placing them in restraint chairs for hours without food, water, medication or bathroom breaks.

The lawsuit filed by the Abolitionist Law Center, the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project and the law firm K&L Gates, is the second this year alleging that the county's jail or its employees routinely use physical force or restraint in response to mental health episodes, requests for mental health help and against people with psychiatric disabilities.

Allegheny County spokeswoman Amie Downs declined to comment on the lawsuit or on use-of-force policies for inmates with mental health issues. She confirmed that Raible is listed as being actively employed at the rank of sergeant.

It was unclear if Raible had hired a separate attorney.

“Raible’s actions are horrifying and have no place in our society,” Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, managing attorney for the Institutional Law Project, said in an emailed statement. “More troubling, however, is the absolute disregard shown by his supervisors to a clear pattern of torture and discrimination against women with disabilities.”

In the complaint, Walker alleges that Raible repeatedly pepper-sprayed her and slammed her face on the ground requiring her to be hospitalized while she was pregnant.

Dorsey and Diggs alleged in separate incidents Raible used pepper spray or shot them with pepper spray pellets while they were naked in the jail’s strip search cage before strapping them to the restraint chair. Diggs further alleged chemical burns because she was not allowed to decontaminate first, and Dorsey alleges she was injured by the straps on the chair.

Lawyers said all three women, who have various psychiatric disabilities, were being held in pretrial detention during the assaults and have been released.

The lawsuit cites use-of-force reports submitted from jails across the state that showed Allegheny County Jail staff used a restraint chair 339 times — more often than any other facility in 2019 and accounting for almost a quarter of all uses in the state that year. The lawyers also note the jail accounted for more than half the use-of-force incidents involving Tasers.