Near-total isolation of juvenile girls at the ACJ raises concerns of illegal solitary confinement | Social Justice | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Near-total isolation of juvenile girls at the ACJ raises concerns of illegal solitary confinement

click to enlarge Near-total isolation of juvenile girls at the ACJ raises concerns of illegal solitary confinement
CP Photo: MARS JOHNSON
The Allegheny County Jail seen on Feb. 4, 2024.

A 17-year-old girl at the Allegheny County Jail spends her days in near-total isolation. At the jail’s school facility, she’s taught by a limited stable of instructors. During recreation time, she’s by herself.

The jail maintains this doesn’t count as solitary confinement. 

Because of how few females the jail admits, they're held in the facility's medical housing unit — almost exclusively by themselves. Activists and lawyers say this de facto practice rubs up against common understandings of solitary confinement and a ballot referendum banning the practice in the county.

Allegheny County became the first jurisdiction in the United States to ban solitary confinement when the widely supported ballot referendum passed in May of 2021, with 70% voting in favor. 

"That is the heart of the bill: that people do not need to be in solitary confinement, that people do not need to be tortured, that people deserve dignity and care while they're incarcerated," Miracle Jones, the director of policy and advocacy at 1Hood Media, says, "and that still stands." 

The referendum defines solitary confinement as being held in a cell alone for more than 20 hours a day, with exceptions for lockdowns, medical or safety emergencies, and protective separation requests. 

The referendum also requires the jail's warden to write monthly reports on the jail's use of solitary confinement.

Since 2016, there have been only 195 days in which more than a single girl has been in custody, according to the jail's population dashboard. But, barring contentious facility-wide lockdowns for medical reasons, the jail only reported one instance of a juvenile girl being held in segregated housing — alone in a cell for more than 20 hours a day.  

Jesse Geleynse, the public information officer for the Allegheny County Jail, told Pittsburgh City Paper in an email that the jail is not in violation of the referendum. He said the 17-year-old girl, who was at the jail as of Feb. 14 and has been held there since Jan. 18, spends four hours and 10 minutes in the jail's school facility five days a week in addition to daily recreation time from 8 a.m. to  8 p.m.

“Female juveniles reside in the medical housing unit because it provides a place where they can be held apart from juvenile males and out of sight and sound of adult female incarcerated individuals,” Geleynse said in an email. “Female juveniles have access to recreation and are not confined to a cell for more than 20 hours in a day, which complies with the … referendum.”

But Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, the deputy director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, questions if the jail meets that 20-hours-a-day requirement on weekends and holidays when school isn't in session. 

Geleynse told CP the jail has no comment on Morgan-Kurtz’s statement.

Morgan-Kurtz also notes that courts across the state vary in opinion on whether isolated recreation time counts as juveniles leaving their cells.

"They're just allowed out into the rec yard by themselves for one hour a day — does that one hour actually count, or not?" Morgan-Kurtz asks. "Some courts will go one way, some courts will go the other, but it's not something that I think is a hard argument to make."

Craig Haney, a social psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz and an expert on the effects of solitary confinement, told City Paper in an email that solitary confinement is harmful for adults and, on average, is the area in the jail with the highest suicide rates. 

click to enlarge Near-total isolation of juvenile girls at the ACJ raises concerns of illegal solitary confinement
CP Photo: MARS JOHNSON
The Allegheny County Jail seen on Feb. 4, 2024.

Haney says the effects can be even more severe for juveniles.

"Not only are [juveniles] vulnerable to depression, anxiety, and even panic attacks that adults in solitary experience, but also, because of their youth, are more impulsive and have a less accurate sense of time — both of which increase the suicide and self-harm risks even more,” Haney says.

Haney says Allegheny County's practice of holding juvenile girls in near-total isolation "frankly sounds like a horrible situation" and noted that most mental health, human rights, and legal organizations have issued statements in favor of prohibiting solitary confinement outright for juveniles.

Geleynse told CP juvenile females have the same access to mental healthcare, medication options, crisis management and other supports as incarcerated adults.

Pennsylvania is one of 19 states where kids aged 15 and older who are charged with certain crimes, such as murder, armed robbery or other violent offenses involving a weapon, automatically enter the adult court system, including adult lockup facilities. 

Because the jail isolates juvenile females by circumstance and not in-house policy, there's no clear-cut solution to addressing juvenile isolation. Jones of 1Hood Media says that any possible solution needs to center on ending the trigger-law sentencing policy that sends kids to adult lockups.

"This is why we keep advocating for community placement and community-based alternatives for these kids," Jones says. "Because at the end of the day, these are still kids, these are still young people, and they should not be in solitary confinement, nor should any adult be in solitary confinement."