By Brittany Hailer
Allegheny County Police Superintendent Christopher Kearns and County Jail Warden Orlando Harper on Friday released the initial findings of an investigation into declarations given by seven incarcerated individuals about conditions in the jail obtained by the Abolitionist Law Center.
County officials claimed that four men interviewed as part of the investigation said that portions of their statements were distorted. The officials questioned ALC attorney Jaclyn Kurin’s procedures in obtaining the information and composing the declarations.
But County Councilwoman Bethany Hallam is calling for an investigation of the investigation.
“I will be emailing my fellow members of the Jail Oversight Board regarding this outrageous action by the County Police and jail staff and calling for just such action,” Hallam wrote in an email.
The declarations were a part of news stories published last week about accusations of the jail’s failure to comply with a county-wide solitary confinement ban and the use of less-lethal weapons which were banned by the Jail Oversight Board.
The findings were reported in an approximately 10 minute press conference. Reporters were given 24 minutes notice of the online conference and no questions were permitted.
The declarations included details about incarcerated individuals being denied the four hours of recreation they are to be provided as part of the ban on solitary confinement and descriptions of jail guards patrolling with weapons containing rubber bullets.
The investigation into the declarations, which were provided to news reporters, was started after a reporter at Pittsburgh City Paper provided them to a county spokeswoman.
Five of the six men interviewed remain in the facility and one has since been released. One of the incarcerated men declined to be interviewed by police and two others stood by their statements.
Two of the men interviewed during the investigation said in interviews with the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism they felt intimidated and coerced during their questioning by police. Both men said they are concerned that they have been misrepresented by the county’s Friday press release.
County Manager William D. McKain and Harper requested the investigatory assistance of the Allegheny County Police Department and its Internal Affairs division, according to the county press release.
“We take every single allegation made at the jail seriously and will investigate them fully, and that includes those allegations that the men who made these declarations stand by,” Kearns said in the release.
County Police and Harper allege in the release that four of the incarcerated men interviewed said their statements contained false statements or were misrepresented or distorted. The press release does not indicate who or how many persons clarified information for each finding presented. Two incarcerated individuals appear to say that they did not feel intimidated by the Special Emergency Response Team corrections officers who carry weapons.
The Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism published some of those declarations last week after Harper reported that nearly 300 persons were held in solitary confinement in December and that corrections officers carried less-lethal weapons in the jail after a weapon ban passed by the Jail Oversight Board. A referendum against the use of solitary confinement, approved by county votes last spring, went into effect Dec. 5.
Corey Durrett-King, formerly incarcerated at the jail, told a PINJ reporter that county police officers interviewed him in his mother’s home yesterday. He said the officers did not ask him anything about Jacyln Kurin, or the Abolitionist Law Center, but asked him to verify the statements in his declaration. He said the obtained statement was accurate. He said officers were holding his declaration and Kurin’s name was at the bottom of the paper.
However, Durrett-King isn’t sure if what he said in the interview was misrepresented, based on the information in the county’s press release.
“You tell them I was forced to do the interview. I was under duress and I didn’t know my rights. And my rights weren’t explained to me, like that I could have had an attorney. I didn’t have to tell them anything. I felt forced. They violated everybody,” said Durrett-King.
Daelon Hill-Johnson, currently incarcerated, contacted a PINJ reporter yesterday to report that Internal Affairs officers woke him up and took him from his cell into a separate room where he was handcuffed and interviewed. He said he did not know why they were interviewing him. Hill-Johnson reported that officers had a paper copy of his declaration and when he asked to review it, officers told him no. Hill-Johnson said the declaration obtained by ALC is accurate.
“Once they started asking questions–it was like it was contradicting what I was saying. I don’t know what they were investigating or if they were trying to intimidate. It was weird. Period,” Hill-Johnson said yesterday after he was returned to his cell.
During his interview with Internal Affairs officers, Hill-Johnson said officers asked him if he felt threatened in the last month, and he panicked. Hill-Johnson stopped the interview when he said he felt he needed a lawyer.
“If I had said I was threatened, they would have told someone,” Hill-Johnson said, “ And I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. It was intimidating. I don’t want to be exposed.”
Bret Grote, Legal Director of ALC, said the law center stands behind the work of Kurin.
“They are trying to deflect from the compound human rights crisis that is the Allegheny County Jail. They’ve expended more energy trying to gather information, trying to smear the reputation of a lawyer who has tirelessly devoted every day of her life for two years, than they have investigating any of the violations that we are fighting to bring to an end,” Grote said of county officials.
Grote said the interviews conducted by officers were “profoundly improper” and “infringement on attorney- client privilege.”
“The interviews were conducted in inherently coercive and intimidating settings,” said Grote. “We have no idea who they were claiming made these statements. We don’t know who took these interviews. They did not ask the consent of those they interviewed to use any of their alleged statements in this press conference and press release–but we did when we obtained their declarations.”
Hallam said she was “shocked to her core.”
“I cannot explain, at all, how the ACJ and [Allegheny County Police Department] employees thought it was even remotely reasonable for law enforcement officers to speak to incarcerated individuals without a lawyer there to assist them. While we don’t know whether ACJ or ACPD employees explicitly threatened these individuals, we do know that what they did was extremely inappropriate, possibly unethical and potentially even illegal. It crosses so many lines and this ‘investigation’ itself should be investigated: who ordered it, were incarcerated individuals read their Miranda right, what they were asked, under what circumstances, etc.,” Hallam wrote in an email.
Brittany Hailer can be reached at Bhailer08@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @BrittanyHailer.