Incarcerated individuals at Allegheny County Jail claim intimidation from guards and insufficient rec time | Social Justice | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Incarcerated individuals at Allegheny County Jail claim intimidation from guards and insufficient rec time

Seven declarations sent from inside jail could expose violations

click to enlarge Incarcerated individuals at Allegheny County Jail claim intimidation from guards and insufficient rec time
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
The Allegheny County Jail
Seven people currently incarcerated in the Allegheny County Jail say they have experienced potential violations of out-of-cell time requirements, arbitrary use of solitary confinement to punish minor offenses, and intimidation from corrections officers armed with less-lethal weapons in declarations provided to Pittsburgh City Paper by the Abolitionist Law Center, an advocacy group and law firm.

All seven individuals were confined to different pods in the jail in December 2021 and said that throughout the month, recreation time was canceled “repeatedly” and “without warning,” often due to short staffing. Some also allege being forced to stand outside in winter temperatures in flip flops, should they elect to use one of the jail’s outside encaged recreation areas, as well as correctional officers encouraging incarcerated individuals to police themselves.

“Harper has put us on lockdowns for non-safety reasons,” Lance Benton, 20, said of ACJ warden Orlando Harper in his declaration. “He makes it seem like we’re violent when we’re not. He says we get rec when we don’t. Harper treats us like animals. We have to deal with our cases and the threat of COVID. We don’t need to be tortured with solitary confinement on top of that.”

A spokesperson from the jail denied some of these allegations and said many of the incidents described do not reflect ACJ’s policies. Administrators added that some pods were forced to isolate last month due to health and safety reasons tied to COVID precautions.

Since Allegheny County’s ballot initiative banning solitary confinement at ACJ took effect in early December 2021, the jail is required to provide at least four hours of out-of-cell time to all incarcerated individuals not in solitary confinement. These declarations hint that the jail’s adjustment to the new requirements has not gone as smoothly as initially hoped, even as jail administrators have insisted that they are fully compliant with the referendum. At last week’s contentious Jail Oversight Board meeting, board members argued that the jail is not fully compliant with the referendum, with potentially hundreds of violations, and is failing to comply with a previous JOB motion banning certain less-lethal weapons.

“Rec is frequently shortened or canceled altogether for non-safety reasons or for isolated incidents on other housing pods,” wrote Aaron Tipton, 30, whose declaration states he is currently in solitary confinement. “We repeatedly must ask COs [correctional officers] for an explanation for why rec is canceled. The three main reasons have been an elevator not working, short staffing, and shakedowns,” which require all pods to go on lockdown.

ACJ spokesperson Jesse Geleynse wrote in an email to City Paper that those three reasons are included in the jail’s lockdown policy and that such a lockdown would be temporary.

“Each of those items listed — elevator not working, short staffing, and shakedowns — would result in a lockdown of the facility and are necessary for the security of the facility," Geleynse said. “Once the issue is resolved, operations would return to normal and recreation time is again offered.”

Benton said in his declaration that his whole pod has had their recreation time canceled “several times” because “a sergeant was annoyed by a celled incarcerated person who was screaming out of his cell for help or medical attention.”

Geleynse denied that recreation time would be canceled in such a situation. “An incarcerated person who is in a cell seeking help or medical attention would not impact recreation time for others,” Geleynse said. “Instead, that incident would be handled separately according to the jail’s protocols. As an additional note, the correctional officers cannot cancel recreation time or call for a lockdown on their own. Those requests would be made to leadership staff and reviewed before any such actions are taken.”

“Let me be clear,” Warden Harper said in a Jan. 11 release, “We are in full compliance with [the] referendum and Chapter 205 and are not circumventing the ban.”

Harper also clarified that the 294 individuals listed in the jail’s most recent report on solitary confinement includes 87 people for whom medical professionals determined “confinement is necessary for medical reasons or to ensure the safety of others.” The list of 294 also includes those isolated in December 2021 because of COVID and those who declined the opportunity to leave their cells for recreation. As of Jan. 11, there are 174 positive COVID cases among ACJ’s 1,590 incarcerated people and 35 jail employees have either tested positive or are currently quarantining.

However, Tipton’s declaration claimed that the issue of individuals refusing recreation time is more complicated than the warden acknowledges. “Sometimes inmates miss rec because they don’t hear the COs ask if they want rec time when passing by the inmate’s cell,” Tipton said. Those people get marked as having refused rec, Tipton said, and aren’t allowed to change their mind after rec time has begun.

Several statements provided to City Paper mentioned individuals’ recreation time being shortened due to correctional officers’ refusal to let them into or out of a cell.

Daelon Hill Johnson, 23, said this can be due to the jail’s “move time” policy. Johnson said, “Under this policy, correctional officers will not unlock an inmate’s cell and let him out for rec unless it is on the hour.” This means if someone wishes to return to their cell during rec to use the bathroom, they may not return to rec until the start of the next hour.

In defense of the move time policy, Geleynse wrote that the policy is neither new nor unique to ACJ and is an important safety precaution. “Constant movement to and from cells by incarcerated individuals during recreation time takes a correctional officer’s time and focus away from the rest of the pod,” he said, “which can have dire consequences.”

Incarcerated individuals say that ACJ has both indoor and outdoor “rec cages,” where people can spend their out-of-cell time. Quentin Primis, 22, said that if someone should wish to use one of the outside recreation areas in the winter, they “are forced to wear flip-flops, sometimes called ‘slides,’ in the outside rec cage even if we have sneakers. Many inmates can’t use the outside rec cage because it’s too cold, and most who attempt to are forced to come back in early because of the freezing temperatures.”

“We are led to the rec cage on a leash. The rec cage is about five steps across. You can’t really do nothing in the cage. You can’t run around. We just walk around the cage like a dog,” Tipton said.

Corey Durrett-King, 41, described a 10-day period he spent in isolation in 4B, the pod for newly arrived incarcerated individuals, during which, “at most, inmates were allowed to leave their cell to have a 15-minute shower every three days.”

Geleynse said that “Pod 4B had both isolation and quarantine in place due to COVID cases” during the time Durrett-King is describing. “Based on medical guidance, limitations are put in place on these pods to prevent further spread of the virus,” said Geleynse.

All seven men recalled regular sightings of SERT officers armed with weapons resembling long guns that shoot rubber projectiles. SERT stands for Special Emergency Response Team.

Howard Milligan, 45, said he has witnessed SERT officers do guard tours twice a day.

“They instill fear as they carry gun-looking weapons as they pass by our cells and stare at us,” wrote Milligan. “The Jail Oversight Board banned these weapons; these guns are not supposed to be here.”

In September 2021, a motion passed by the JOB prohibited the jail from bringing in any “shotguns, rubber bullets or other similar equipment.”

At the Jan. 6 JOB meeting, warden Harper stated the jail was not in violation of that motion because, “We have not brought in any shotguns because we already had shotguns in the facility.”

Jajuan Martin, 28, said that corrections officers also “joke about shooting us with rubber bullets,” and described a recent incident when three SERT officers entered a shower while incarcerated individuals were bathing. “The SERT officers threatened the inmates at gunpoint, shouting that they would shoot them if the inmates didn’t stop showering and return to their cells immediately,” Martin recalled.

Geleynse referred to the weapons as “special delivery systems,” saying, “They have not been deployed at all. We do not utilize or even possess rubber bullets at our facility.” Geleynse indicated that the weapons are loaded with small rubber projectiles that resemble Koosh balls, toys popular in the 1990s made of rubber filaments radiating from a steel-bound core.

Primus and others also accused the jail administration of instigating violence, saying corrections officers told his pod, “‘You’re going to have police yourselves. You’re going to have to handle inmates if they don’t follow the rec rules.’ We understood this to mean that we are to confront an inmate and use physical force if an inmate doesn’t go into his cell at the end of rec time,” Primus said.

Geleynse said the jail doesn’t have any reports concerning Primus’ specific allegations, and the matter “would have to be investigated further.”

“The ACJ employs more than 350 correctional employees and houses more than 1,500 individuals — as you can imagine, it is impossible to know everything that is said every single day,” said Geleynse. “If this is correct, it will be dealt with and appropriate actions taken with those correctional officers. Our goal is to ensure that this facility and its employees are following best practices, and something like what has been alleged is not acceptable. There should be no uncertainty at all about who is responsible for addressing any issues — that is the role and responsibility of the correctional officers, and we will be certain that is clear to everyone.”

William Lukas of the Abolitionist Law Center wrote in an email to City Paper that these declarations detail “incredible harms endured by community members at the expense of Warden Orlando Harper” and his boss, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who Lukas says “continues to deny responsibility or involvement.”

“After all the countless editorials from ACJ survivors, all the lawsuits, all the preventable deaths,” he continued, “We must ask: if not for the sake of self-righteousness and retribution, then why else would Harper and Fitzgerald continue to ignore — and outright resist — such massive public pleas for decarceration, health care, dignity and reform? If the County Solicitor and the Jail Oversight Board cannot meaningfully disempower an autocratic Warden and a County Exec who is defying his constituents, then what purpose do they actually serve? Who will actually fight for our loved ones behind bars in Allegheny County?”

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