“The jail is very blatantly disrespecting and not complying with [the referendum],” said Allegheny County Councilor and JOB member Bethany Hallam (D-North Side), citing the jail’s newest report to the JOB on their use of “segregated housing.”
The report, dated Jan. 5, documents almost 300 individuals who spent one or more days of December 2021 in “segregated housing,” meaning alone in a cell for more than 20 hours a day, despite the county now largely banning the practice. Some on the list spent the entire month in segregated housing.
Under the Allegheny County Code, which was amended by referendum passed in May 2021, the only exceptions to the solitary confinement ban are facility-wide lockdowns; emergency use for a period of 24 hours while staff determine if there is a medical reason or a reason related to “the safety of other detainees or inmates” that someone must be isolated; and if a person requests protective custody on their own.
In the jail’s report, the reason for each individual’s solitary confinement merely states “safety.”
Hallam and local advocates like the Alliance for Police Accountability and the Abolitionist Law Center, argued that the single word “safety” is not a valid exception to the referendum.
At last night’s meeting, Allegheny County Jail warden Orlando Harper claimed that the referendum allows, “the warden [to] make the determination as to what the reason is.”
Specifically, the language in the code says, “No person may be held in emergency or short-term solitary confinement unless the warden has made and documented an individualized determination of the necessity for that person’s confinement.”
The ballot initiative defines “solitary confinement” as confinement to a cell for more than 20 hours each day. That means that in order for the jail to stay in compliance, most people confined to the jail need to leave their cells for at least four hours every day.
Hallam said that a woman recently held in an acute mental health unit was “chained to a table” outside her cell for four hours a day and unable to stand up and not allowed to eat.
“When you're doing your report for the solitary, are you counting four hours of handcuffed rec the same as four hours of non-handcuffed rec?” Hallam asked.
“The referendum said ‘out of cell time,’” Harper said, “that counts.”
When pressed by Hallam as to whether or not such treatment was acceptable, Harper said, “We have some severely mentally ill individuals in our facility, and if that’s the way we got to provide out of cell time for these individuals, that's the way we have to do it.”
Additionally, Jonas Caballero of Abolitionist Law Center spoke about reports from incarcerated people that said some “patrol units [were] armed with guns capable of firing rubber bullets.”
When pressed to describe the nature of these weapons, Harper said, “We do have officers carrying special delivery devices.”
He went on to read the language of the motion the JOB recently passed in an effort to bar the jail from working with controversial training organization C-SAU, which said, “The Jail Oversight Board prohibits Allegheny County from bringing into the jail any shotguns, rubber bullets or other similar equipment or animals identified or described in any C-SAU training program until permission is granted by the Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board.”
Harper said, “We have not brought in any shotguns because we already had shotguns in the facility.”
“Come on, warden,” Hallam responded. “It’s clearly an action of bad faith.”
At this point, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Elliot Howsie, who chaired the meeting and is newly appointed to fill the position previously held by President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark, interjected and asked Harper if he was in violation of the motion.
“I am not,” Harper said.
Hallam responded, “This just seems too absurd to me. I must be misunderstanding something. What are we going to just sit up here and let them lie to us? We’re not going to do anything about it?”
“What would you have us do?” Howsie asked. “Any suggestions you have? If you’d like to submit a recommendation, I’m more than happy to discuss it.”
No one on the board responded.
Despite fundamental disagreements about the meaning and requirements of the new law, advocates for the referendum are not giving up. APA President Brandi Fisher said, “We fought for more than words on a paper. We fought for the rights of community members in the jail to not be tortured with solitary confinement.”
The Alliance for Police Accountability has created a hotline for those incarcerated at the jail, or others, to report compliance problems. It is 412-708-5200.