By Brittany Hailer
Corey Durrett-King was released from the Allegheny County Jail in May and still suffers from the effects of the 23-and-one lockdown that keeps the incarcerated in their cells for all but about one hour a day. To avoid spending hours inside his cell, Durrett-King volunteered to work cleaning cells in the jail’s mental health unit.
Durrett-King suffered from his own solitary experience while incarcerated and he also suffered from watching others deteriorate in the jail’s mental health and medical housing units.
Now that he’s free, Durrett-King said he sometimes struggles to connect with friends and family. He withdraws. He has panic attacks. He left the jail worse than when he entered it.
“Corrections’ job is rehabilitation. During this pandemic, they can’t do that. There’s no programs. They are short staffed. That whole jail is a mental health institution. You’re forcing people to get sick physically and mentally,” Durrett-King said
Durrett-King was incarcerated from Sept 2019 to May 2021. During that time, his job was to clean cells, hallways and showers in the mental health unit at the jail. He delivered food trays and sometimes slipped the men playing cards or puzzles. “For hours, I would go door to door and just talk to them,” he said.
Often, he said, those he met in the mental health unit were elderly or indigent persons struggling with acute mental illness. He said due to the 23-and-one restrictions, men turned erratic and then despondent, and, eventually, vacant. Often, he said, he coaxed men to take a shower or change their clothes.
“You couldn’t make the guys do mandatory showers. You can’t make them do that. But I would encourage them to do it. I had to do that on my own. The one [correction officer] used to help me,” said Durrett-King.
Durrett-King said he continued to work the cleaning job because it gave him a chance to give back to others in the jail. He saw himself in some of the men because he’s struggled with his own mental health in the past and he recognized a lack of mental health care at the jail.
“I watched every guy who came back from Torrance State Hospital came back fine and on medicine. And then the jail put them on 23-and-one again and every man deteriorated. It was bad. They were already short staffed. The 23-and-one lockdowns would lead the mental health guys to snap from sitting in that cell. It would lead them to getting tasered and sent down to medical. It was a repeated cycle,” Durrett-King said.
At the September County Council meeting, Durrett-King addressed council and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald about conditions in the jail, staffing shortages and the lockdown’s impact on the mental health of those incarcerated.
“These conditions at the jail are very serious…The medical department is very short-handed, very short-handed. The mental health department is very short handed. You got guys down there–I want to say that 80% of the jail is on psychiatric medication. You want to know why? Because they’re stuck in a cell,” Durrett-King said during public comment.
“We are supposed to be innocent before proven guilty, let’s not forget that,” he said, “That jail is seriously hazardous.”
And now, the memories of the men from the mental health unit keep Durrett-King awake at night. He remembers the man who fell and broke his hip and who was taken to the hospital. He remembers the man who tried to kill himself. He remembers a man who was strapped down on a bed in six point restraints and wheeled away, screaming.
He’s constantly worried the walls are going to close in on him again. Durrett-King said he was prescribed Prozac while incarcerated in order to treat his mental health.
“I started deteriorating myself. One of the doctors noticed a change in my behavior. I was getting irritated and I wouldn’t leave my cell. They put me on Prozac,” said Durrett-King. He thought to himself, “What the hell is happening?”
When he was released from the jail, he chose to not continue his prescription.
Durrett-King has spent time at the Allegheny County Jail before. He’s also served time at a state prison. But this last stint, one marked by isolation, has affected him profoundly.
“I am still on edge. I want to be normal,” Durrett-King said.