Allegheny County Settles Some Claims Over Jail Conditions Amid COVID-19

May 27, 2020

Allegheny County has settled some key issues in a lawsuit over its handling of the coronavirus at the county jail, with prison-reform advocates winning several concessions.

Under a consent order filed Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon, the jail must put medically vulnerable people in their own cells, and house newly admitted inmates separately for two weeks, to reduce the risk they will bring the virus into the facility. Jail staff are also required to wear masks throughout their shifts. And administrators must send the plaintiffs’ lawyers weekly reports with a range of jail population statistics, updates on grievances filed by people who are incarcerated, and invoices for purchases of personal protective equipment

But while the plaintiffs had asked for additional inmates to be released, the agreement doesn't include that step. Attorneys for the plaintiffs say they will continue to seek those releases as the case proceeds. The county has not admitted fault, and Bissoon noted some other disputes also have yet to be resolved. For example, the three inmates who brought the suit argue that conditions at the jail subjected inmates with compromised immune systems to discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

The inmates filed the case as a federal class action in April. In their complaint, they accused the jail of providing inadequate medical treatment and cleaning procedures while also crowding inmates together unnecessarily. They urged the judge to order the immediate release of all inmates 55 and older, as well as those with preexisting medical conditions, because both groups face a higher risk of serious illness or death if infected with the virus.

The plaintiffs were represented by the Abolitionist Law Center, the law firm Dechert LLP, Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

In a statement, ACLU attorney Sara Rose said her team was “pleased that Allegheny County has taken these important steps to protect people at the jail. We hope that these measures will prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the jail while also treating people humanely.”

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald declined to comment on the case specifically. But at a news conference shortly after the consent order was released, he said, “To my knowledge, there are no known cases at the jail right now. And I want to credit the jail staff and the warden and his team for doing … a very good job at protecting the folks in there.”

As of Tuesday, 28 inmates and six jail employees have been diagnosed with COVID-19. All 28 inmates have recovered, along with three staff members, according to a county website. Sixty-eight of the jail's approximately 1,700 inmates have been tested for the disease. Fifty-nine employees have been tested.

In a statement Wednesday, Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project attorney Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz said the county should test all jail inmates.

“Nationwide, prisons and jails have begun testing their entire populations with alarming results showing high percentages of asymptomatic individuals,” she said. “In order to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 at the jail, Allegheny County should follow the lead of Philadelphia and implement a policy of universal testing.”

Earlier this month, the county’s Jail Oversight Board declined to call for the universal testing of inmates. Several board members said they wanted to learn whether such action would be helpful or practical, given the cost of necessary personal protective equipment and regular turnover within the jail population.