According to a press release, the infected employee didn’t provide direct care to inmates at the jail and has not been at work since the afternoon of March 19. On March 12, Allegheny County Rich Fitzgerald issued a state of emergency for the county, and that week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was advising people not to gather in groups of 50 or more.
County officials report that there are no positive coronavirus cases among direct-contact employees or inmates. “All individuals with access to the facility are being strictly monitored for signs and symptoms of the virus,” reads the press release. As of today, there are at least 158 positive cases of coronavirus in Allegheny County.
This first positive case of a jail employee occurred as advocates and some Allegheny County Councilors are calling on the jail to release the vast majority of its population as a way to stem the spread of coronavirus. Allegheny Councilors Liv Bennett (D-North Side) and Bethany Hallam (D-Ross) introduced a bill mandating the release of all inmates allegedly violating probation and those charged with or allegedly committing misdemeanors and non-violent offenses.
The goal of those efforts was to reduce the jail’s population by 75%. On Tuesday, the bill failed to pass in Allegheny County Council by vote of 5-9, and the legislation has since been amended to a non-binding motion.
Advocates wanted the jail to reduce its population since inmates are kept in very close, and allegedly, unclean quarters at the jail. They said that in a crowded jail, it is impossible to practice proper social distancing, and the jail’s practice of constantly transferring inmates in and out makes it a likely place to spread coronavirus. The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania has noted that the vast majority of inmates are incarcerated there on non-violent charges, such as not being able to afford cash bail and probation violations.
Allegheny County Council rejects waiving of 2nd reading for Bethany Hallam & Liv Bennett bill that seeks to release large numbers of inmates from AC Jail. Bill is sent to public safety committee. It will have to pass through that committee before returning to full council vote— Ryan Deto (@RyanDeto) March 24, 2020
According to a press release, 545 inmates have been approved for release as of 3:30 p.m. on Fri., March 27. Allegheny County judges, the public defender’s office, the District Attorney’s office, and the jail have been working in collaboration to release inmates with non-violent charges and those who are vulnerable to COVID-19. Typically there are about 2,000 inmates housed in the Allegheny County Jail on a given day. These changes have reduced the jail’s population by about 25% so far. On March 19, about 190 inmates had been approved for release.
“As is anticipated with community spread, there is an expectation that COVID-19 will soon impact not only county facilities and departments, but the entire region,” reads the statement from county officials. “For communication purposes, the county will make public notifications related to county facilities and departments when the positive cases impact a greater population than its employees.”
The Cuyahoga County Jail in Cleveland has also been releasing inmates from its walls due to the coronavirus, but the Cleveland Scene reports that about 900 inmates there have been released.
However, Hallam said this first confirmed case makes her believe the county should have acted swiftly and more decisively to reduce the jail population more quickly.
“As I’ve said since the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Allegheny County, it was always a matter of when, not if, we would see an outbreak in the jail,” says Hallam. “My colleagues on council had an opportunity to pass legislation that would’ve protected our incarcerated population and the workers within the jail, but instead refused to act.”
Hallam is calling on the county’s Jail Oversight Board, of which she is a member, to “come together to ensure anyone who can be released is, and to implement additional measures to protect everyone within the walls of the jail, including testing for all staff and incarcerated persons, as well as increased access to medical treatment, hygiene products, and cleaning supplies.”