Solitary Confinement, No-Knock Warrants Come Closer To Appearing On May Ballot

Feb 16, 2021

Activists are one step closer to asking local voters to curb the use of solitary confinement at the Allegheny County Jail and to ban no-knock search warrants within the city of Pittsburgh.

The Alliance for Police Accountability announced Tuesday that it had submitted enough signatures to county elections officials to place both measures on the May 18 primary ballot. The group said it filed 43,000 signatures for the solitary confinement initiative and 21,000 for the no-knock warrant question.

Both figures exceed the number of signatures needed to appear on the ballot, giving organizers a cushion to withstand challenges to the validity of individual signatures. To qualify for the ballot this year, countywide referendums require signatures from nearly 27,100 registered voters while citywide ones require signatures from roughly 12,500, according to Allegheny County’s elections division. Tuesday was the deadline to file both petitions.

Brandi Fisher, president and CEO of the Alliance for Police Accountability, said she’s been surprised by the level of support her organization’s campaign has already drawn: More than 1,000 people volunteered to gather signatures by hosting “signing stations” throughout the county and by mailing petitions to voters, Fisher said.

Pandemic-related restrictions required “a very intentional and tactical effort,” she noted. And she said years of organizing and last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests helped to build enthusiasm.

“People are just more aware and getting back to our humanity,” she said.

While the police killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville last March amplified nationwide calls to ban no-knock warrants, Pittsburgh officials say they’ve already abandoned the tactic. Still, Pittsburgh City Council is considering a bill that would prohibit its use, and Fisher said it’s also important to hear directly from voters on the issue as well.

“Let’s see what the majority of people say when we’re talking about what governs our world, what governs our lives. Let the people decide,” she said.

The ballot initiative would require officers to knock and announce their presence as police when executing a warrant at a residence. They then would have to wait at least 15 seconds for the occupants to answer and open the door. Officers would also be required to use body cameras during the search, for at least five minutes beforehand and afterward, and during any subsequent arrest or search.

Fisher noted that, if approved, the referendum would be harder to overturn than an ordinance passed by city council because voters would need to return to the polls to repeal it.

Solitary confinement should also end, Fisher said, because its excessive use is known to cause severe psychological damage.

“I mean it’s 2021, and we’re still treating our incarcerated population … less than human beings,” she said.

In September, prisoner-rights advocates filed a lawsuit that accused jail staff of regularly using solitary confinement to punish inmates who suffer from mental illness.

“The [jail is] using solitary confinement as punishment for people who are acting according to their psychiatric disabilities,” Fisher said. “Putting people in solitary confinement actually increases  tendencies of anger and violence. And so why would we want to be doing that to people when we’re supposed to be rehabilitating [them]? They’re called correctional facilities, [but] they just become torture chambers.”

The ballot measure would largely ban the practice, which the measure defines as confining someone in a cell or other living space for more than 20 hours a day. The policy would include exceptions for facility-wide lockdowns and emergencies where an inmate threatens the safety of others or seeks to be isolated to protect their own safety. However, in those cases, the jail warden would need to document why isolation is necessary. The warden would also be required to produce monthly reports on the use of solitary confinement.

In instances of emergency confinement, the measure would require jail staff to provide at least four hours of out-of-cell time each day. Licensed professionals would also need to perform medical and mental health examinations to determine whether isolation is necessary and what conditions are needed to prevent the confined person from experiencing physical and psychological harm.

Voluntary confinement would be limited to 72 hours, during which time jail staff would need to arrange for less restrictive conditions that ensure the inmate’s safety.

Voters need not be members of either political party to vote on the ballot questions.