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Solitary Confinement, ‘No-Knock Warrant’ Measures Sail To Election Day Victory

Ballot initiatives to restrict the use of solitary confinement at the Allegheny County Jail and to ban “no-knock warrants” in the city of Pittsburgh easily won the approval of voters Tuesday, May 18.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Ballot initiatives to restrict the use of solitary confinement at the Allegheny County Jail and to ban “no-knock warrants” in the city of Pittsburgh easily won the approval of voters Tuesday, May 18.

Voters emphatically approved two local ballot initiatives to limit the use of solitary confinement at the Allegheny County Jailand ban the use of “no-knock warrants” by Pittsburgh police.

With nearly all precincts reporting unofficial election results Tuesday night, both measures appeared to have garnered the support of more than two-thirds of voters.

“This is what the people want,” Alliance for Police Accountability president and CEO Brandi Fisher said of the resounding victory for both ballot questions. “That's what a true democracy is about.”

Fisher’s organization worked with a coalition of activist organizations, including New Voices PGH, Pennsylvania United, and SEIU Healthcare PA, to campaign for the ballot measures.

The question regarding solitary confinement will stop Allegheny County Jail staff from isolating someone in a cell or other living space for more than 20 hours a day. There are exceptions for facility-wide lockdowns and in cases where incarcerated people threaten the safety of others or themselves.

Even in those emergency situations, however, the jail warden would need to document why isolation is necessary, and inmates would be required to receive at least four hours of out-of-cell time each day. Extended periods of solitary confinement are known to cause severe psychological harm.

Prior to Election Day, jail officials did not take a position on the countywide ballot question. But a spokesperson said the facility does not use solitary confinement as punishment. The ballot initiative’s supporters dispute that claim, citing the accounts of people who have been held at the county jail and say they were forced into isolation.

“People being confined there for weeks, months, we hear these stories, we see these cases, and it causes very severe mental health issues,” Fisher said. “These are our friends. These are our neighbors. … And this [ballot initiative] is going to make a huge impact on our lives.”

The no-knock warrant question, meanwhile, asked city of Pittsburgh voters to bar police officers from executing a search warrant at a home without first knocking and announcing themselves. The issue gained attention last year, when Louisville, Ky., police killed Black emergency room technician Breonna Taylor during a raid on her home.

The measure that local voters approved Tuesday requires officers to wait at least 15 seconds for occupants to answer before entering a residence. Police would also need to have their body cameras turned on and wear clothing that clearly marks them as law enforcement.

“It’s going to mean a great deal for the Black community specifically,” Fisher said. “This will keep people safe in their homes.”

Pittsburgh’s police bureau says it already follows this policy. And others point out that the term “no-knock warrant” may be a bit of a misnomer, given that judges who grant search warrants generally do not give the police advance permission to enter a home without warning.

But the ballot question’s backers argue that, by regulating the manner in which officers may serve a warrant, the measure will help to build trust between the community and police.

Some worry that the required 15-second wait time will hamper officers’ ability to respond to emergencies that arise during the execution of a search warrant. The policy’s proponents doubt the likelihood of that scenario, noting that police often initiate searches in the early morning, when most people are sleeping.