COVID-19 prompts calls for the release of inmates from Allegheny County Jail

  • An-Li Herring/WESA

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(Pittsburgh) — Conditions at the Allegheny County Jail create “the perfect storm for a potential COVID-19 outbreak,” local activists said in an online statement that calls for the mass release of people held at the jail.

Posted Sunday, the statement outlines several factors that make the jail an especially risky environment: close quarters make social distancing practically impossible for the facility’s 2,400 occupants; inmates often lack basic hygiene items; and the high turnover of people at the jail increases the chances the virus will spread, both inside and outside the building’s walls.

“It will become an incubator for COVID-19 within the county and the surrounding region,” said Bret Grote, co-founder and legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center.

The jail has suspended social and professional visits. It said it would make exceptions, however, for family, friends and religious advisors of inmates who become severely ill or near death. Legal visits may continue pending further review, the notice says.

Grote said county officials must go much farther.

“They need to be really emptying the jail out, and determining who needs to be there … who do they have reason to believe, if released, would pose a threat to life and health,” Grote said.

Grote noted that jail staff are also at risk of spreading the disease to the outside community. A county spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

Grote’s organization was one of dozens to sign Sunday’s statement. Among the signatories were: the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, Casa San Jose, 1Hood Media, and Take Action Mon Valley. Several Democratic office-holders also signed on. They included two members of Allegheny County’s Jail Oversight Board: County Councilor Bethany Hallam and County Controller Chelsa Wagner.

The statement listed numerous recommendations for local courts, prosecutors, law-enforcement agencies, and county and jail administrators. But it is unclear how feasible those suggestions will be since Allegheny County President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark declared a judicial emergency to last through April 14.

In an order released Tuesday evening, Clark said all criminal court proceedings, except for bail hearings and daily motions court, would be postponed.

In fact, most Allegheny County court proceedings, including both civil and criminal trials, have been put on hold. Evictions, for example, have been postponed, at least through April 14. But protection-from-abuse cases will continue to be heard, as will certain emergency motions. Clark’s order followed a statewide emergency declaration by the state Supreme Court Tuesday afternoon.

In their statement Sunday, Grote and the other advocates urged judges to grant motions for the release of all people being held for probation violations, those awaiting trial who have not posted bond, elderly inmates, and people with compromised immune systems. The group also recommends that people incarcerated for non-violent offenses or misdemeanors be released, along with people who have less than six months remaining in their sentences.

While such actions could proceed by motion or bail modification, it’s unclear whether or how quickly the volume of cases could be handled through the motions court or bail hearings, even though those forums would remain open under Clark’s order.

The activists’ statement notes that judges in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, released hundreds of inmates during a special session Saturday. The Cleveland courthouse aimed to release as many defendants as possible and to find alternative arrangements where release was ruled not to be an option.

Prosecutors and public defenders are reviewing individual high-risk cases for potential release, said Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office spokesperson Mike Manko. In an email, Manko said his office would “also welcome any discussions from private attorneys who represent inmates they believe to be high-risk” for the virus.

In their statement, Pittsburgh area activists recommended that those charged with violent crimes in Allegheny County be monitored on house arrest. Grote said those deemed a public safety threat could also check in with officials by phone, and face penalties for failing to report.

Grote agreed that individualized review would be necessary, but he said such consideration should extend to the allegations defendants face, with those accused of crimes such as simple or aggravated assault standing a greater chance of release than those charged with homicide or certain types of sexual assault.

Regardless, Grote added, any review should be “expedited,” with public health remaining “the overarching concern … which arguably should be the overarching concern in non-pandemic times, too.”

Beyond Allegheny County, three prison reform groups said Monday they had sent letters to all of Pennsylvania’s county jails, federal prisons, and immigration detention centers, and to its Department of Corrections. The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, and Families against Mandatory Minimums asked the agencies to take a number of steps to protect inmates, including collaborating with health officials to limit the spread of coronavirus.

“We know there is a lot of pressure right now on administrators of prisons and jails,” ACLU of Pennsylvania Executive Director Reggie Shuford said in a statement. “We want to be sure that they are thinking clearly about best practices to care for the people in their custody that are based in science and that they are being transparent about those practices.”

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