Recreation time at the Allegheny County jail means being handcuffed to a table for four hours in the women’s acute mental health unit

Brittany Hailer

A woman incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail mental health unit said she spends four hours a day –the entirety of her daily recreational time– chained to a table in the women’s acute mental health unit. 

She told the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism that her legs go numb and her wrists are indented and red from the shackles. The shackles are chained to a loop on a table and she is unable to stand up during this four-hour period. 

Her experience became part of the discussion during the Thursday Jail Oversight Board Meeting when County Councilwoman Bethany Hallam questioned Allegheny County Jail Warden Orlando Harper and Deputy Warden Laura Williams about it. 

Incarcerated persons are ensured four hours of daily out-of-cell time after Allegheny County voters passed a solitary confinement ban last spring. That referendum went into effect in December. Prior to the ban, women in the acute mental health unit spent 23 hours a day in their cells as  the entire jail lived in lockdown for nearly two years. 

Hallam said the woman is not allowed to eat during those four hours. She also said that if the woman has to use the bathroom, she must go back to her cell and is then not allowed to complete her recreation time. 

“When you’re doing your report for the solitary [referendum], are you counting four hours of handcuffed rec the same as four hours of non-handcuffed rec?” asked Hallam.

“The referendum says out-of-cell time. Yes, that’s counted,” said Harper. 

Hallam further pressed Harper about the woman experiencing pain, being denied food while at the table, and forfeiting her recreation if she has to use the bathroom. 

Harper’s response was to ask for the individual’s name and department of corrections number, “so I can actually look at it and investigate it and get back to you.”

But Hallam declined to provide it.

“Ok, with all due respect, I fear retaliation for this person … I don’t want to give her name without her own permission,” Hallam said. 

Hallam also asked Harper if the story she shared sounded out of the ordinary.  “Are you shocked by hearing any of these things or is this proper protocol on certain pods such as 5MD?” 

Harper said he wasn’t shocked. 

“We have some severely mentally ill individuals in our facility, but that’s the way we got to provide recreational out-of-cell time for these individuals, that’s the way we have to do it,” Harper said. 

“But people are being chained to tables?” Hallam pressed again. 

“Yes,” said Harper. 

The incarcerated woman who has been chained to the table told PINJ that she has been diagnosed with depression, anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and is housed in the mental health unit because of these designations. The only time she is permitted to use her tablet is during the four-hour recreation time. But, with her hands chained and looped to the table, she has trouble making calls or even reading from her tablet.

[Read one incarcerated man’s account of the men’s mental health unit at the jail]

She is not permitted to have pen and paper in her cell, so she can only write when she is at the table, but the cuffs make it physically hard for her to write.

 “I don’t know if the referendum banned this, because this is not rec. My wrists hurt, there are indents on my skin and it’s red,” she said. “This has been going on consistently since Christmas. I am keeping my head up, and trying to stay strong, but my whole body hurts…What purpose does this serve?”