Allegheny County Jail reports nearly 300 incarcerated persons in solitary confinement after county voters banned practice

By Brittany Hailer

The Allegheny County Jail was supposed to end most uses of solitary confinement on Dec 5 as a result of a referendum passed by county voters last spring. 

But, in this month’s solitary report from Warden Orlando Harper, presented at Thursday’s Jail Oversight Board meeting, 294 incarcerated persons were held in solitary confinement for “safety” reasons in December. 

Harper did not define what safety issues prevented out-of-cell time and local advocacy groups say that violates the referendum passed by county voters. 

The Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism reported that the jail had locked the incarcerated in their cells for up to 23 hours a day since the start of the pandemic. Prison officials in Pennsylvania and beyond called Allegheny County an outlier for it’s nearly two year system-wide lockdown. 

Alliance for Police Accountability, the group that worked to gather over 600,000 signatures to get the solitary confinement referendum on the ballot for Allegheny County voters last May, sent a letter to the Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board yesterday alerting the JOB that nearly 300 persons in solitary is not in compliance with the solitary ban. 

The APA’s letter states that the jail “…is impermissibly denying hundreds of people their out of cell time for an unspecified ‘safety’ reason, which is NOT an exception to the law. We implore the JOB to educate Warden Harper on the requirements of the law and its exceptions.” 

Over thirty advocacy groups signed the letter including 1Hood Media, Abolitionist Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and State Representative Summer Lee.

“Since December the fifth we have been fully compliant. … we are fully compliant and have been fully compliant,” Harper said during Thursday’s JOB meeting. 

Board member and County Councilwoman Bethany Hallam objected to Harper’s “safety” justification.

“The biggest concern is the rationale you’ve listed as ‘safety’ and that is not in compliance with the referendum,” said Hallam. 

Hallam pointed to the three justifications for solitary under the referendum: Facility-wide lockdowns, emergency use of short-term solitary confinement for individuals for a period of 24 hours, and any person who requests separation from other detainees because that person fears for their safety. 

During the public comment period of the JOB meeting, Jonas Caballero, a paralegal at the Abolitionist Law Center said, “People are being routinely denied recreation or out-of-cell time.“

“One reason a rec time was denied was because an elevator was not functioning,” Caballero said. Another time, he said. a person was denied recreation for “repeatedly shouting out for medical attention.”

The solitary ban isn’t the jail’s only violation of accountability measures. 

APA’s letter alerted the board that jail officers are still armed with shotguns which violates the oversight board’s September 20, 2021 motion banning non-lethal weapons.

Caballero told the board that incarcerated persons are reporting that corrections officers are, “Armed with guns capable of firing rubber bullets…”

 “Individuals are very scared when they see these officers patrolling their pod. Some have reported even experiencing PTSD symptoms, fearing they will be shot by correctional staff,” according to the APA letter. 

Harper confirmed that jail officers have been patrolling the jail with “special delivery devices” then read the  language from the weapons ban passed by the board in Sept,“…the Jail Oversight Board prohibits Allegheny County Jail from bringing into the jail and shotguns, rubber bullets, or other similar equipment…”

“We have not brought in shotguns, because we already had shotguns … We did not violate the motion because we did not bring anything into the facility,” said Harper. 

“It’s clearly an action of bad faith,” Hallam responded. 

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Elliot Howsie, in his first JOB meeting since replacing President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark as board chair asked Harper, “Are you in violation of the motion presented by the board?

“I am not,” Harper said.

Jacyln Kurin, staff attorney at the Abolitionist Law center, said Harper’s interpretation of JOB’s motion banning non-lethal weapons “strains credulity as it contravenes nearly every applicable cannon of statutory interpretation.”

“He absurdly claims that JOB is more concerned about preventing dangerous weapons from entering the jail, rather than preventing officers from firing those dangerous weapons at incarcerated individuals,” said Kurin. 

The APA said it has created a hotline (412-708-5200) for incarcerated individuals and others to report compliance issues or violations by the jail or its employees of the solitary confinement or non-lethal weapons bans. 

“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,” APA  President Brandi Fisher said, “The jail has many inhumane issues that need to be addressed and children are being housed there. This should be a priority of everyone and especially to those in leadership positions responsible for how the jail operates.”