Save Lives - Empty The Jail

Posted by Garret Wassermann on April 09, 2020 · 6 mins read

As we deal with the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic, one population of people does not have much of an ability to prepare for or protect themselves from COVID-19 – our neighbors that are currently held in the Allegheny County Jail.

Workers inside the Allegheny County Jail are saying jail administration is “in way over their heads”, and are anonymously reporting that workers are being disciplined for wearing face masks, and people held in the jail are kept in crowded cells while whole floors of cells sit empty. It’s so bad that a class-action lawsuit is being filed against the county and county jail warden Orlando Harper for unhealthy conditions in the jail. The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association has also stepped in and urged lawmakers to take action to let people out of jails before they catch COVID-19.

Meanwhile Allegheny County Council members largely voted in favor of re-appointing a member to the Jail Oversight Board that has only attended a handful of meetings over 5 years. Thank you to Councilmembers Hallam, Prizio for voting against the re-appointment; as usual, I am left guessing why my county councilmember Tom Baker voted for this proposal, partly because he still has never responded to my inquiries.

All of these facts scream to me that many of our local and state officials aren’t taking this pandemic seriously, nor are they taking potential human rights violations in the jail seriously.

So there’s two steps you can do:

  1. Tell County Councilmember Tom Baker (or your own councilmember if you are outside my district) that you want immediate action to release more people from the jail. More humane conditions, including social distancing, needs to occur for anyone left in the building. Find your council members’ contact info here.
  2. Tell State Representative Anita Kulik (or your own representative) to prioritize legislation that would immediately release a large number of non-violent offenders statewide. Find your state representative’s contact info here.

If COVID-19 spreads rapidly in the jail, then the injuries and deaths resulting will be from the negligence of the county and state officials who refused to act swiftly when we knew ahead of time this was coming. The district attorney and attorney general should start considering criminal negligence charges on some local officials.

As a side note: many folks are already feeling antsy just with a few weeks of the Coronavirus “stay-at-home” order. This isn’t even as bad as people on house arrest have it, because at least you don’t need to wear an ankle monitor and receive regular calls from the probation office to verify that you are home. At least you don’t have to schedule when you want to leave the house ahead of time. And of course, for folks in the jail itself, they have even less freedom, spending most of their days in a tiny cell smaller than most bedrooms – except no real bed, no books to read, nothing, only getting to come out for “rec time” an hour or two a day if they’re lucky and the jail isn’t on lockdown for arbitrary reasons. I’ve heard sometimes lockdowns can last for days, leaving people trapped in cells with no break, no shower, for days. It hasn’t even been a month yet since the first stay-at-home orders went into effect, but imagine what it must be like for folks sentenced to 30, 60, 90 days in jail – sometimes over things as simple as not paying a parking ticket on time.

Hopefully your experience just staying-at-home shows a glimpse at the inhumanity of keeping people locked in a cage. It is a traumatizing experience to have your freedom taken away, and be stuffed into a cell or constantly monitored at home. Jail doesn’t solve problems or make amends for anything, it just tortures the person sentenced to jail, giving anxiety and trauma potentially for life, in addition to all of the other issues it creates (no income while in jail, etc.). It creates anger and resentment, or hopelessness. It isn’t how we should treat human beings at all, much less the people that are our neighbors and live in the community.

I hope we can have a public dialog about the best way to handle people that have infringed on the law. In many cases, the laws need to be changed, and many things shouldn’t even be crimes – marijuana use, for one example. But even when a legitimate law is broken, is the right answer jail? Or can we use some other methods, perhaps therapy and community service, to make amends and restore people, rather than revenge and torture?

UPDATE 4/14: COVID has now been detected in the Allegheny County Jail, and reports from the inside of the jail do not match what the jail is telling the public. There is huge concern that the jail was not properly prepared.


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