Prison-reform groups filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Allegheny County and county jail warden Orlando Harper Tuesday, warning that the facility is poised to suffer a severe outbreak of COVID-19 unless it takes more drastic measures. Hours later, the urgency of the issue was underlined when the county announced that an inmate had tested positive for COVID-19, about two weeks after a jail employee was diagnosed with the disease.
The prisoner "and cell mate have been quarantined since the onset of symptoms," said a statement from the county.
But in their complaint against the county, lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, Abolitionist Law Center, and Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project alleged that crowding persists at the jail, and that medical treatment and cleaning procedures remain “woefully inadequate.”
The attorneys urged the federal court for western Pennsylvania to order the immediate release of all inmates 55 and older, as well as those with compromised immune systems. Both groups, the complaint notes, face a higher risk of serious illness or death if infected with the virus.
The filing adds that freeing vulnerable inmates would not only remove them from danger but would also “permit social distancing measures ... to be implemented for those remaining at the jail.”
Local judges have expedited the release of hundreds of inmates in response to the pandemic: A county spokesperson said that more than 850 inmates have been freed since mid-March. ACLU attorney Vic Walczak hailed county officials for doing so.
But he and other attorneys who sued the county Wednesday said that officials “have not taken advantage of that release to implement social distancing recommendations to keep detainees at least six feet apart,” as encouraged by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Specifically, they fault the jail for continuing to house its approximately 1,700 inmates two to a cell while also clearing two floors of all occupants.
Jail officials said earlier this week that they consolidated the inmate population into fewer housing units to clear space for those who might become infected and need to be isolated. So far, the county has tested 16 inmates and jail staff members for COVID-19, according to county data.
Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, managing attorney at the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, said there’s a high risk of more cases at the facility, which she said could easily spread beyond its walls.
“The evidence is already pretty clear that jails really are an epicenter of spreading the virus among communities because of the in-and-out of jails,” Morgan-Kurtz said. “So, slowing the spread at the jail is very important for Allegheny County as a whole.”
She and her co-counsel noted in their complaint that Rikers Island Jail in New York City, Cook County Jail in Chicago, and federal prisons across the country are already grappling with dramatic outbreaks of COVID-19. And they cautioned that an explosion in cases at jails and prisons adds to the overall burden on health care providers.
They outlined a series of concerns about Allegheny County Jail’s handling of the virus. Inmates still eat meals in groups outside their cells, and they share communal phones that are not disinfected between uses, according to the suit. The filing also accuses the jail of not providing inmates with enough soap or toilet paper, and of being slow to give instructions on cleaning protocols, social distancing, and how to use masks. The lawyers also allege that the jail’s screening procedures for incoming staff and inmates are insufficient, and that one-third of the facility’s 136 health care positions are vacant.
But the county’s deputy chief warden of health care services, Laura Williams, testified in federal court Tuesday that the jail requires frequent disinfecting of commonly touched surfaces. Five phones, she said, had to be replaced after being repeatedly coated with a bleach and water solution.
She added that precautions regarding screening and treatment of the disease had been taken in line with advice from the county Department of Health. And in a statement Wednesday, the county said, “Physical distancing continues to be stressed to employees and inmates across the facility,” including during group recreation time.
Regardless, the lawsuit against the county argued that the threat to older and immunocompromised inmates is unacceptable.
“Even with the most comprehensive plan to address the spread of COVID-19 in detention facilities,” the lawsuit said, “the release of individuals who can be considered at high-risk of severe disease if infected with COVID-19 is a key part of a risk mitigation strategy.”
The request for the blanket release of vulnerable inmates comes less than a week after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected a plea to release broad categories of people held at county jails throughout the state. The justices instead ordered county judges and officials to make their best effort to minimize the threat of the coronavirus behind bars.
But Morgan-Kurtz said, “This case against Allegheny County is focusing specifically on the conditions at Allegheny County Jail [and the] claim that the jail is failing [at its] constitutional duty to keep people safe.”
The complaint accuses county officials of violating their obligations under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to “provide for the reasonable health and safety of persons in pretrial custody” and to uphold due process rights of those being detained before trial. The suit also alleges that the county’s treatment of inmates with pre-existing health conditions amounts to discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The three inmates named in the suit have serious pre-existing conditions, according to the complaint, and they are being held in advance of trial. Two of them were also booked for violating the terms of their probation. They seek to represent all current and future detainees at the jail as part of a class action lawsuit.
Morgan-Kurtz said she hopes the court acts swiftly on the case.
“We are certainly looking for this to move as quickly as possible because, as we all have seen everywhere, every day counts when it comes to flattening the curve of COVID spread, and keeping people safe, and keeping our clients alive,” she said.
A county spokesperson declined to comment on pending litigation.