Incarcerated individuals spend most of their days locked in their cells without programming, outside recreation or in-person visits
By Brittany Hailer
During the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, people the world over saw their lives shrink into confined spaces. They and their families transitioned to working and learning from home via computers. Moving around meant pacing living quarters, walking laps around neighborhoods or exercising on apartment balconies. Contact with others — when not online — was limited largely to outdoor gatherings.
While the terms of that confinement sometimes felt harsh, contrast it with those lodged at the Allegheny County Jail, where many haven’t stepped outside to see the sun since March 2020. They’ve been locked in cells for up to 23 hours a day, permitted just one hour for showers, phone calls and recreation in the indoor jail gyms. Trial delays due to COVID-19 mean that many of the incarcerated are spending more time at the jail than during pre-pandemic times.
While vaccines and other mitigation measures have made it possible for restrictions to be loosened in the outside world, most of those incarcerated at the county jail still remain in cells for close to 23 hours each day, eating their meals there and going without rehabilitative programming or in-person visits from family.
Jail administrators refer to this practice as 23-and-one.
At a time when other jails have returned to pre-pandemic mode, Allegheny County’s reliance on such restrictive lockdowns makes the facility an “outlier” in Pennsylvania and beyond, according to some prison policy experts.
“For anyone to say that this jail is normal is absolutely outrageous,” said Susan McCampbell, president of Center for Innovative Public Policies.
McCampbell said that she doesn’t know of another county jail in the United States where the incarcerated are locked down 23-and-one.
“I think you have an anomaly right there,” said McCampbell, a prison policymaker and researcher who has made recommendations in ways to improve jail safety, correctional officer training programs, and sexual assault misconduct.
“This goes back to the very core of the organization, because what the expectation is in a pre-trial population is that they’re held in the least restrictive custody,” she said.
Programming and visitation returns to other Pennsylvania state and county facilities
Pennsylvania state prisons have worked to return to pre-pandemic operations. All of the 23 Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC) facilities have resumed in-person visits to incarcerated persons since May of this year. According to the PADOC website, “in-person visitation is available to the vaccinated permanent population at all DOC facilities.”
Programming is returning to state facilities, too. Incarcerated persons leave their cells for exercise, education, jobs and counseling. In November 2020, state Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel told WHYY that system-wide lockdowns were no longer necessary.
“If we start having multiple symptomatic cases at a facility that hasn’t had them, we may lockdown for 48 or 72 hours to do a full cleaning of the facility, but that’s it,” Wetzel said.
And, on the county level, jails are reopening.
York County Prison, which can house up to 2,400 incarcerated persons, re-opened for in-person visits in August. Visitations are permitted daily. Dauphin County, which houses around 1,000 incarcerated persons, permits in-person visitation every other week. Lancaster County Prison re-opened it’s facility to visitors in March, the facility houses 700 incarcerated persons as of August.
Philadelphia Department of Prisons do not currently allow visitation and the most recent census from Philly jails is 4,699. But a federal civil rights lawsuit in June has forced jail officials there to increase out-of-cell time to a minimum of three hours daily for the incarcerated.
‘Everybody is in segregation. That is every cell block.’
At the Allegheny County jail, the current lockdown conditions exist at the same time it is supposed to be preparing for the elimination of the use of solitary confinement in December.
In May, Allegheny County became the first county in U.S. history to ban solitary confinement by referendum. As a result, most uses of solitary confinement must end there in December.
That means incarcerated persons can no longer be confined to a cell for more than 20 hours a day except in cases of lockdowns, medical or safety emergencies and protective separation requests.
For now, most of those incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail still remain in cells for close to 23 hours each day for unspecified safety issues, according to jail officials.
Deputy Warden Laura Williams told the Jail Oversight Board (JOB) on Oct. 9, “Right now we don’t feel comfortable having visitation at the jail. As soon as we feel that is safe with consultation with our health department we will resume visitation at the jail.”
The new referendum requires the warden to report to the JOB monthly information concerning the use of solitary confinement and jail lockdowns. The jail reported to the JOB in September and October that the entire facility constituted solitary confinement due to “safety.”
Whether the jail’s safety justification will allow it to continue its lockdown after Dec 1 is unclear.
Vaccination status may have an effect on the jail’s ability to meet the referendum mandate. In September, Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald mandated that all county employees provide proof of vaccination by Dec 1. Allegheny County correctional officers have protested the measure — and their union has filed suit against the county over it. Additionally, 40% of the jail’s staff have not provided proof of vaccination, jail administrators said at October’s JOB meeting. It’s unclear if that percentage has increased.
Also, during the October JOB meeting, Warden Orlando Harper told the board that if there is a “mass exodus” of unvaccinated corrections officers, the entire jail will go into full lockdown. (That would mean incarcerated persons would remain in their cells 24 hours a day.)
In that same meeting, Harper told Bethany Hallam, an Allegheny County Council and JOB member, that all individuals in the jail had been in their cells for over 20 hours a day for the month of September. The Warden clarified to Hallam that all incarcerated persons are getting “at least an hour” out of their cell a day.
“Everybody is in segregation. That is every cell block,” said Harper.
(‘Segregation’ is a term used by jail administrators that means incarcerated persons who are isolated from the general population. However, those kept inside their cell for long periods of time may have a cellmate. The term “segregation” is often used by corrections staff instead of solitary confinement. The referendum defines “solitary confinement” as more than 20 hours inside a cell.)
Williams told the board that the jail does not have a “metric” for when the facility may open back up.
“It’s been fluid the entire time. We’ve been trying to establish what that metric would be,” Williams said. “Numbers are reducing, vaccines are increasing. We have lower case count in our institution. But it’s only been a week that we’ve seen those numbers. This isn’t enough of a timeline to reduce restrictions.”
According to the jail’s COVID-19 dashboard, the case count of positive individuals in the facility was two. The dashboard was last updated on Oct 7.
Medical and mental health positions at the jail remain vacant
McCampbell suggested the jail is short-staffed on medical professionals and that is why it remains on lockdown.
“Any facility that has 100% of their inmates locked down 23-and-one, there’s something really, really wrong with that. If the COVID epidemic has overcome them, that means that they have really poor health care. There are issues with inmate supervision, staff hiring, staff training,” McCampbell said
Staffing shortages were noted in a 2019 report about the jail when the Allegheny County Bureau of Corrections reviewed the suicide prevention practices there. The agency contracted with National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC) to conduct an assessment of the jail’s suicide prevention program and to make recommendations for improvement.
The report observed “shortages in nursing and mental health specialists” and recommended the jail focus on correcting their staffing numbers.
“We were also concerned with the availability of mental health specialists to provide individual and group counseling consistent with effective methodologies, psychosocial/psychoeducational program services, intake mental health screening on days/evenings when there is an influx of arrests, and follow-up on inmates in the other housing areas” NCCHC reported.
The jail’s staffing levels have been at a deficit since NCCHC’s report and have continued throughout the pandemic. Based on the NCCHC’s findings, the JOB required Harper to report mental health and medical staff vacancies to the JOB monthly.
As of the October JOB meeting, there were 49 vacant positions including several registered nurse and mental health nurse positions as well as a director of nursing, an assistant director of nursing, a health services administrator, a director of mental health programs, and an infectious disease coordinator.
Noah Barth and John Hargreaves of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, a nonprofit that works to ensure humane prison and jail conditions and advocates for policy change, said that smaller county jails and larger prisons in Pennsylvania are moving toward more unrestricted cell time statewide. They agreed that the Allegheny County Jail’s current lockdown is not common practice.
“This is an outlier. The other counties are not doing this any longer….almost universally now, they’re giving the prisoners a lot more time out of their cell. I talked to a warden yesterday who told me she doesn’t really keep anybody in their cells any longer because she doesn’t consider COVID to be much of an issue,” Hargreaves said
Low staffing levels are a valid excuse for lockdown, according to Hargreaves, but ultimately, he said, the onus is on the administration.
“It’s a valid excuse if you don’t have enough staff. But, the onus is back on them to redress that by hiring more staff. And the way is to increase the salaries,” said Hargreaves.
Barth said county jails are facing staffing issues at their facilities state-wide. At the annual conference of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, Barth said when he asked the room which counties were having issues keeping adequate staffing in their county jail, “almost every single hand of the 50-plus county commissioners present went up.”
“There are plenty of other counties that are having serious issues maintaining adequate staffing levels, yet they are still able to provide some level of out-of-cell time and recreation. The two are most certainly connected but it cannot simply result in inadequate treatment for people in prison,” said Barth.
On Oct 12, Fitzgerald pitched his budget during the County Council meeting, which increased the allocation for Allegheny County Jail by $12 million. Fitzgerald said the spike in costs was due to the solitary referendum and that the jail needed to hire more staff in order to comply with the referendum’s requirements.
“The referendum has become a very costly item for the jail administration to deal with,” Fitzgerald said. “Taking away certain tools means we’re going to be requiring more staff.”
Amie Downs, spokesperson for Allegheny County, did not respond to requests for comment. Jail administrators have not cited staffing issues as a reason for their facility-wide solitary confinement.
Barth said that the lack of transparency about how staffing is affecting COVID-19, and general operations at the jail, is a problem.
“Call it what it is. Why are people not being let out?…Let’s get down to what the issue is and then get down to how to resolve it,” Barth said.
‘The spillover effects from this affect everyone’s health and safety…’
Jill McCorkel, a professor of Sociology and Criminology at Villanova University and the director of the Philadelphia Justice Project for Women and Girls, said she believes most facilities in Pennsylvania have ended their lockdowns and that, “Allegheny County enjoys the status of being an outlier at this point in Pennsylvania and probably largely for most of the country.”
Decades of studies show that the psychological impacts of solitary confinement are long-lasting and sometimes irreversible. In McCorkel’s March op-ed in the Penn Capital-Star, she pointed to Craig Haney, the leading expert on the psychological impact of long-term isolation, who found that “research findings on the psychological effects of solitary confinement have been strikingly consistent since the early nineteenth century.” Without the proper support, long-term isolation can lead to self-harm, violence, and drug addiction.
McCorkel said it is clear the jail will suffer from a mental health fallout after months in isolation.
“This is another area where the research literature is so clear and has existed for decades: the effects of even short term solitary confinement on issues like anxiety and depression. The longer you’re in, the more it amplifies…There’s paranoia, suicidal ideation, self-harm. It doesn’t take very long to unleash it and then it takes a long, long time to undo it,” McCorkel said.
Philadelphia recently paid $125,000 to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit that claimed the city did not comply during the pandemic with rules requiring incarcerated persons to receive a minimum of three hours out of their cells each day. But, McCorkel said, even the Philadelphia jails saw some breaks in it’s lockdowns.
In September, the city of Philadelphia surpassed 400 homicides in 2021. Gun violence contributed to more than 340 of those deaths.
McCorkel theorized that the uptick in shootings and street violence this year could be attributed to persons recycled out of custody who have been traumatized by their incarceration during the pandemic. She said that after long-term isolation people are more likely to self-medicate, relapse into violence or suffer from other co-occurring mental illnesses.
“The spillover effects from this affect everyone’s health and safety in the facility, but it affects the health and safety of people in the community because the upticks inside the jail then play out on the streets. The demand of the public is that they want to raise their children in a safe environment. But these practices, this trauma, is literally producing crime,” McCorkel said.
Pennsylvania and the United States should start “thinking creatively” about how to reduce the consequences of long term isolation developing and evolving out of incarceration, according to McCorkel. However, often institutions don’t admit that there is a problem, she said.
Her message to Allegheny County Jail officials is this:
“Listen, you guys have a really big problem on your hands. And we’ve got to figure out a way to be in a room together and start problem solving. You got to be a little more open than you are… I am sympathetic to officers who are the only officer on a unit and they are physically vulnerable. But, you can’t continue to hide behind the barrier.”
Correction: Oct. 28, 2021
An earlier version of this article misstated the Philadelphia Department of Prisons as the Philadelphia Department of Prisons Houses of Corrections and that has been updated. The correct census for the Philadelphia Department of Prisons has also been updated.