CP Jail Watch: probation detainer lawsuit, another death, banned books, and more | Pittsburgh City Paper

CP Jail Watch: probation detainer lawsuit, another death, banned books, and more

A monthly feature keeping tabs on the Allegheny County Jail and its leaders

click to enlarge CP Jail Watch: probation detainer lawsuit, another death, banned books, and more
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
Allegheny County Jail

Quote of the month:

“The nation’s 40-year failed experiment with mass incarceration harms each and every one of us. This analysis shows that while some communities are disproportionately impacted by this failed policy, nobody escapes the damage it causes.”

—Emily Widra, Senior Research Analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative, in reference to a new report on geographic trends in mass incarceration in Pennsylvania. The report contains information on how many people from each Pittsburgh neighborhood were incarcerated in state prison in 2020.

New lawsuit challenges alleged overuse of probation detainers in Allegheny County

A local law firm has filed suit on behalf of six individuals incarcerated for alleged probation violations at Allegheny County Jail. The complaint argues the county’s criminal legal system is routinely violating the constitutional rights of people placed on probation by overusing probation detainers.

The Abolitionist Law Center, a Pittsburgh-based public interest law firm, and the Civil Rights Corps, a non-profit based in Washington, D.C. named three Allegheny County judges in the class-action suit filed yesterday in federal court. The defendants include Administrative Judge Jill Rangos, Court of Common Pleas Judges Anthony Mariani and Kelly Bigley, as well as Orlando Harper, warden of the Allegheny County Jail, and Frank Scherer, probation director.

“The lawsuit challenges the systemic use of probation detainers, the single largest driver of incarceration at the Allegheny County Jail,” the firms write in a joint press release. “A probation detainer prohibits an individual’s release from jail until they have a hearing to determine whether they violated their probation. On any given day, about one-third of the [Allegheny County] jail population (upwards of 600 people) has a probation detainer lodged against them. Approximately 16% of them are accused only of a technical violation of probation, such as failing to update their address or to meet with their probation officer.”

According to the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the state has the second highest percentage of citizens on probation and parole out of all 50 states. Probation is a court-ordered period of correctional supervision framed as an alternative to incarceration. It can be imposed in lieu of or in addition to a prison sentence.

The complaint also alleges that two of the common pleas judges named in the suit, Mariani and Bigley, enforce blanket “no-lift” policies for probation detainers, which require anyone alleged to be in violation of their probation to remain incarcerated until they complete a set of two hearings on the alleged violation.

Gerald Thomas, 25, who died earlier this year after collapsing at inside the jail, was on a probation detainer set by Mariani at the time of his death. Mariani maintained Thomas’s detainer after the district attorney's office dropped all charges for his alleged probation violation.

In Pennsylvania, judges have a great deal of discretion when setting the terms of individuals’ probation. Judges can require probationers to comply with conditions that are "onerous", the ACLU reports, such as "meet[ing] regularly with an officer, pay[ing] supervision fees, find[ng] and maintain[ing] employment, undergo[ing] repeated and random drug testing, and open[ing] their home to random searches."

If someone is unable to meet any of the conditions of their probation, they can end up back in prison. According to a 2020 report by Human Rights Watch and the ACLU, the majority of people locked up for probation violations nationwide were jailed for violations of the terms of their probation, not for new offenses.

“I thought that we were supposed to be innocent until proven guilty,” says Dion Horton, the lead plaintiff in this case. “But with probation detainers, it’s like I’m guilty before I’m ever tried. That doesn’t seem fair to me.”

According to his lawyers, Horton has been incarcerated indefinitely at the county jail since February 2022 under a probation detainer.

Although “a judicial officer in a separate proceeding ordered that he could be released from jail,” the release says a probation detainer was lodged against him “with no separate determination that his incarceration is necessary.” They say he does not know when he’ll get a hearing on the alleged violation.

The county probation department and the jail both declined to comment on the pending litigation as a matter of policy.

Judges Mariani, Rangos, and Bigley did not immediately respond to Pittsburgh City Paper’s request for comment.

State Context: New tool to consider cash bail

This month, the ACLU of Pennsylvania released an interactive tool allowing users to explore statewide data on trends in the use of cash bail in 2016 and 2017. According to its profile of Allegheny County, the average bail for a Black person during the years in question was almost $5,000 higher than the average bail for a white person. The tool also allows you to look at statistics on the use of bail during those years by specific magistrates.

National Context: DOJ lost track and gave up counting deaths in custody

A 10-month investigation from the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations presented in Washington this month found that the federal government has failed to accurately report the number of people who died in American prisons and jails in 2021 in violation of the 2013 Death in Custody Reporting Act. The bipartisan investigation identified 990 deaths that were reported at some level by state or local governments but didn’t make it into the justice department's accounting on the federal level. Those 990 deaths do not include deaths that county jails and state or federal prisons failed to report in the first place or individuals who die shortly after being released from jail.

Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Georgia), who led the investigation, said during a recent hearing the justice department has indicated it will cease publishing data on deaths in local jails and state prisons. This week, Ossoff introduced a bill to establish an “inspections regime” in the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

ACJ in the News

Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism reported last week that jail staff reached out to the outlet to report the death of Anthony Talotta, 57, who was found unresponsive in his cell and died in the hospital hours after Allegheny County Jail released him from custody.

Jail spokesperson Jesse Geleynse did not confirm Talotta’s death, writing in an email to PINJ that the jail has neither access nor the right to review an individual’s health information after they have been released. A week later, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's editorial board reported their inquiries were met with a similar response.

Reporting by PINJ director Brittany Hailer indicates this isn’t the first time jail administrators have released a dying individual from their custody and then declined to publicly acknowledge or report that person’s death. The institute reports that Talotta, who was previously diagnosed with autism and intellectual disability, was arrested Sept. 9 after allegedly pouring hot water on an employee at the residential facility where he lived.

In more recent PINJ news, the non-profit publication reports the county medical examiner determined that the cause of death for Victor Joseph Zilinek, 39, who died in jail on July 13, was an overdose of fentanyl and methamphetamine.

Hailer, whose reporting frequently calls attention to a lack of transparency within the jail, writes that the announcement of Zilinek’s death was especially vague.

Law360 reports (paywalled) a common pleas judge has upheld an arbitrator’s decision that members of the Allegheny County Prison Employees Independent Union are entitled to paid time off when they are forced to quarantine due to on-the-job COVID exposure. Allegheny County appealed the arbitrator’s decision to Common Pleas Court but the challenge was unsuccessful.

September’s Banned Books Week sparked discussion of Allegheny County Jail's procedures regarding books and educational materials on Twitter. Jail spokesperson Jesse Geleynse tweeted a short thread on the facility’s rules for book delivery, stating they must include receipt and be delivered by USPS. Tanisha Long, a community organizer with the Abolitionist Law Center, tweeted a thread summarizing the jail’s since-reversed 2020 ban on purchasing books for incarcerated people, and alleging continued problems with book access at the jail. Long says books by Black authors, including those about the Civil Rights Movement, have frequently been turned away by jail administrators when they have been ordered for incarcerated individuals.

Also this month, Allegheny County Controller Corey O’Connor announced and began an audit of county programs intended to support children with incarcerated parents. Anna Hollis, executive director of Amachi Pittsburgh, spoke with Pittsburgh City Paper about what they need from their caregivers and communities.

The University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work presented the results from a fall 2021 survey of people incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail during the September Jail Oversight board meeting. The survey, which had a notably high response rate, painted a bleak picture of a jail where incarcerated individuals report a lack of access to adequate food, clothing, and healthcare. City Paper highlighted some of the more disturbing quotes from incarcerated people who took the survey.

A bill that passed unanimously through the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in September would limit the use of certain restraints and solitary confinement on pregnant people incarcerated in state correctional institutions, require the provision of menstrual products, and ensure mother-child visits in most circumstances, WESA reports.

Stats: Who was in the jail this month?
Source: Allegheny County Analytics
unless otherwise specified
From Sept. 1, 2022 to Sept. 30, 2022

  • Average daily population of jail and alternative housing: 1,657 individuals.

  • 89% of people incarcerated in the Allegheny County Jail are male and 11% are female. It’s unclear how many trans, nonbinary, and/or gender nonconforming people there are in the jail.

  • 65% of people incarcerated at the jail this month were Black and 34% were white. Allegheny County as a whole is 13% Black and 78% white.

  • Children in the jail: 24 individuals under 18 are held in the jail, making approximately 1.5% of its average daily population. (Philadelphia County reports 11 children in their jail in August 2022, making 0.2% of its average population.)

In his monthly report to the oversight board, Warden Orlando Harper includes more detailed statistics about who was in the jail and what care they received. His most recent report covers July 15 - Aug. 15, and includes information about service provision and staffing.

On Aug. 1, the warden reported 624 individuals in the maximum security classification (42%), 545 individuals in the medium security classification (37%), and 300 individuals in the minimum security classification (20%).

From mid-July to mid-August of this year, 397 incarcerated individuals received a contact visit, making up 17% of the average daily population.