At the same time the Allegheny County Jail returns to 23-and-one lockdown, more than three dozen corrections officers test positive for COVID-19

Medical staff is also short, with reports of just one nurse available at times

By Brittany Hailer

The Allegheny County Jail is once again on 23-and-one lockdown a month after county voters passed a referendum that banned most uses of solitary confinement and required the jail to provide the incarcerated with at least four hours of recreation a day. 

The reasons for the lockdown are unclear, but COVID cases continue to sweep through the jail’s population and workforce. 

Jail correction officers union president Brian Englert said Sunday that 41 Allegheny County Jail corrections officers are quarantined and at least 17 housing units are in isolation. Englert said each shift is down at least a dozen correction officers. The jail workforce is at a deficit and the medical staff is “non-existent,” he said. 

Following the publication of this article, Warden Orlando Harper released a press release on Jan. 11 that said the number of employees with positive COVID cases “is currently 19 and an additional 16 are currently in quarantine.”

“Currently, there are 174 positive cases of COVID in the facility. Today’s population is 1,590. As a result, 11 units are on isolation status and three are on quarantine status. Additionally, all intake units currently have both isolation and quarantine status incarcerated individuals,” according to Harper.

This comes at a time when COVID infection rates are at a record high in Allegheny County, with a seven day average of 2,327, and a positivity rate of 33.6%, according to the county Health Department COVID-19 dashboard. 

Incarcerated persons reported that the warden and administration have not been providing recreation since the solitary ban went into effect in December and they say understaffing is to blame.

Last week,Harper reported nearly 300 people in solitary confinement to the Jail Oversight Board, but denied non-compliance to the solitary ban. In his Jan. 11 release, Harper provided additional detail on the December segregated housing report. Harper said the 294 incarcerated individuals listed on the December report included, “persons who received medical and mental health examinations with professionals certifying that the person’s confinement is necessary for medical reasons or to ensure the safety of others.”

As discussed in the meeting, the reason listed for each was safety. When asked to clarify, I didn’t provide more detail and, in hindsight, should have done so,” said Harper. “Safety was the term selected to define those persons when a better description would have been more appropriate. That number, for December, totaled 87.”

The nearly 200 other incarcerated persons on the segregated housing report spent more than 20 hours a day in their cells because they tested positive for COVID-19 or “were allowed to spend four hours, or more, outside of their cell but either refused it or did not remain outside of their cell for the four hours” according to Harper.

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. Experts believed the jail’s staffing shortages could be why administrators routinely relied on locking residents in. 

On Sunday, an email sent to jail staff read, “The Jail will be on modified lockdown [until further notice].” The email indicated that 17 housing units, or, nearly 50% of the jail, is in isolation due to COVID outbreaks among incarcerated persons. The 17 units in isolation are not permitted recreation. 

Those who are allowed out of their cell, can only recreate for one hour. 

“You will be conducting recreation consisting of 15 inmates and 2 workers for roughly an hour at a time,” the email reads. 

“If you look at the medical situation. That’s even more horrendous. We have one nurse, working the whole jail,” Englert said. 

At the Jan. 6 Jail Oversight Board meeting, Englert addressed the board about his concerns for officers on staff. He said one nurse worked the entire jail his last shift, and was pulled off of the medical housing unit in order to pass medications and perform diabetic checks for the entire jail, while carrying a medical emergency bag should he have to respond. 

Brian Englert addresses the Jail Oversight Board on Jan 6, 2021.

Incarcerated persons from different housing units reported to PINJ the effects of low staffing and COVID outbreaks in the jail. Some said that they did not receive their morning medications until 2:00 p.m. on Sunday. Others reported entire pods being tested for COVID by corrections officers and not nurses because there was not medical staff available. Others report routinely being denied recreation because the jail doesn’t have the space or workforce to accommodate out-of-cell time. 

Harper said in his press release on Jan. 11 that staffing issues can result in lockdowns, “…intermittent lockdowns for reasons such as an elevator not working, short staffing, or a shakedown. Some of these items, depending on the severity, would result in a lockdown of the facility and are necessary for the security of the facility. Once the issue is resolved, operations would return to normal and recreation time is again offered.”

In October, prison policy maker Susan McCampbell suggested the Allegheny County Jail was continuing to deny recreation because of staffing shortages. 

“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. 

This month, incarcerated persons say they were denied recreation and that the warden has not been compliant since December with the county’s solitary ban and that short-staffing is as much to blame as COVID outbreaks. 

JaJuan Martin, currently housed in the jail, reported in a court declaration obtained by staff attorney Jaclyn Kurin of the Abolitionist Law Center that recreation time in the jail has frequently been canceled or cut short for non-safety reasons.

“Many times, rec has been canceled because of short staffing,” Martin said. 

Lance Benton, also housed at the jail, similarly reported to the ALC that as of December 2021, “we have rarely received 4 hours of out-of-cell time daily. Frequently rec is shortened to 1-2 hours or canceled all together…Several times rec has been canceled for the entire pod because a sergeant was annoyed by a celled inmate who was screaming out of his cell for help or medical attention. 

“Our rec also has been repeatedly canceled because of short staffing. I don’t understand why we are being punished for ACJ’s staffing decisions,” Benton said. 

Another incarcerated individual, Aaron Tipton, reported that incarcerated persons in “the hole”, or solitary housing, are routinely denied recreation in a court declaration obtained by ALC. 

“Rec is frequently shortened or canceled altogether for non-safety reasons or for isolated incidents on other housing pods” Tipton said.  “The three main reasons have been an elevator not working, short staffing, and shakedowns. Many times, we were not given a reason for why our pod is lockdown.”

When they are allowed out of their cell, “we are led to the rec cage on a leash. The rec cage is about five steps across. You can’t really do nothing in the cage. You can’t run around. We just walk around the cage like a dog,” Tipton said.

Another incarcerated person, who is a worker in the jail, cleans hallways and cells in housing unit 4B reported in a declaration obtained by ALC, that “inmates housed on that pod never get rec. They are only allowed to leave their cells for a 15-minute shower every three days.” 

“It’s really bad,” one incarcerated person said in an interview, “like really bad. Worse than it has ever been. They’re mixing positive and negative inmates on the pod. And none of us have rec. There’s not enough PPE for everybody, just some people. There’s no medical supervision whatsoever.” 

Brittany Hailer can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @BrittanyHailer.

This article has been updated to include a press release from Allegheny County Warden Orlando Harper.