Jail resumes modified lockdown due to COVID; advocates renew calls to decarcerate | Pittsburgh City Paper

Jail resumes modified lockdown due to COVID; advocates renew calls to decarcerate

The Allegheny County Jail has returned to a “modified lockdown,” due to rising COVID cases, Warden Orlando Harper announced in a county press release last week.

“The jail had been on a good trajectory until recently with much of our operation restored to normal, but the recent increase in COVID infections resulted in our reaching out to our health partners to determine how best to limit the spread,” says Harper in the May 20 release. “Based on that advice, we believe these mitigation efforts are necessary to maintain the health, safety, and security of our incarcerated population and our staff members. Once the number of infections decrease, we can reevaluate and adjust our operations again accordingly.”

The county says that 91 incarcerated individuals have COVID, as of May 18, and 24 have had a known exposure. Among staff, the release notes that 29 staff members have tested positive or are in isolation after an exposure, and 12 of the jail’s 28 housing pods are on isolation status.

Fully vaccinated incarcerated individuals whose pods are not on isolation status will be allowed in-person visits with fully vaccinated visitors, the jail says. The release recommends that all potential visitors call 412-350-2062 or 412-350-2063 to ensure the pod of the individual they wish to visit is not currently isolated.

County councilor Bethany Hallam, who serves on the Jail Oversight Board, questions the decision to put 12 pods on isolation status rather than release individuals held at the jail to reduce the risk of COVID transmission.

“The damage this type of prolonged lockdown will have on those held inside—as well as their families and the greater community—is unmeasurable,” Hallam says in a statement to Pittsburgh City Paper. “Its harmful effects will continue to be felt years into the future.”

Hallam says the Allegheny County Jail is "already experiencing an unprecedented staffing shortage, as well."

"The only solution to both the staffing crisis and high COVID-19 transmission is to vastly reduce the population of the jail, similar to what was done earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, by working with the courts to lift arbitrary and unnecessary detainers and modify unaffordable bonds," she says. "Only 5% of those incarcerated at the ACJ are serving a sentence — the population could be drastically decreased tomorrow and solve so many of these crises.”

In the early months of the pandemic, Allegheny County officials, the Public Defender’s Office, and the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office released about 25% of its average daily population. As of today, there are 1,552 incarcerated individuals in the jail.