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Protecting Public Health in Allegheny County: Release and Divert People from Allegheny County Jail to Fight the Spread of the Coronavirus

Abolitionist Law Center
Mar 16 · 7 min read

The rapid spread of COVID-19 has created an international public health crisis. It has now been classified as a global pandemic by the World Health Organization and declared a national emergency by the United States. In Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Wolf ordered all K-12 schools to close and prohibited all public gatherings of over 250 people, and most major universities have switched to online learning for the remainder of the school year. Both City of Pittsburgh Mayor Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald have declared a state of emergency in their respective regions. The nationwide attempt to “flatten the curve” — to slow the infection rate so as not to overwhelm our healthcare system — has led to the implementation of many measures that prevent large groups of people from congregating in close quarters.

However, these measures do not take into account one of the most vulnerable, highly concentrated populations: the county’s jail population, composed of over 2300 individuals packed into tight quarters and often lacking basic hygiene items. Additionally, prevalence of health conditions that increase vulnerability to COVID-19 — including tuberculosis, asthma, HIV, hypertension, diabetes, heart conditions — are all significantly higher among the jail and prison populations. To make matters worse, the jail’s medical capacity isn’t nearly high enough to deal with a potential outbreak within the jail; it is woefully understaffed to deal with the medical needs of incarcerated individuals as is. Many individuals will likely need to be transported to and from the hospital, further increasing the likelihood of exposure and transmission.

Because 81% of individuals at the Allegheny County Jail have not been convicted of a crime, and the rest are serving relatively short sentences, there is a high turnover rate at the jail. Over 100 individuals pass through intake on a daily basis. The result is that many individuals will enter an environment where the risk of contracting COVID-19 is relatively high, and simultaneously many individuals will also be leaving and potentially spreading the illness to others. This high turnover also increases the likelihood that staff at the jail will contract and spread the disease. All of these factors converge to create the perfect storm for a potential COVID-19 outbreak to spread quickly amongst the incarcerated population. Emergency efforts to decarcerate the jail are more crucial now than ever. Doing so will decrease the likelihood of COVID-19 spreading amongst the ACJ population and staff and subsequently throughout the region. It will also make it more manageable for the jail to provide adequate medical care to those affected.

Other counties have already taken steps towards emergency decarceration, and Allegheny County ought to follow their lead to slow the spread of the disease in the region. San Francisco County’s Public Defender has announced that his office’s attorneys will be seeking the immediate release of pre-trial clients who have a high susceptibility to the virus, and the County’s District Attorney has instructed his office’s prosecutors to not oppose these motions for individuals not deemed a threat to public safety and to strongly consider sentences of time served in plea deals. Additionally, the judges, the Public Defender, the District Attorney, and the Sheriff of Cuyahoga County in Ohio, where Cleveland is located, have agreed to hold mass plea and bond reduction hearings in an effort to release as many people as possible from the jail and reduce the impact of potential outbreak of coronavirus among this population. Many other regions are calling for or implementing similar measures. Other countries are taking strong preventive action as well. Iran plans to release 70,000 people from its prisons. Counties in the United States, the country with the highest rate of incarceration in the world, ought to be taking similarly urgent measures. The potential of COVID-19 to spread among the incarcerated population was seen in China, where the incarceration rate is six times lower than in the United States. Over 500 cases of coronavirus were reported from just four prisons in China, two of which were in the region at the epicenter of the outbreak. It is imperative that public officials act now to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the region to prevent a similar outcome.

We are calling on the county executive, county council, and all of county government and administration; judges, prosecutors, and public defenders; police, parole and probation officers to all unite on emergency decarceration initiatives to halt the rapid spread of COVID-19 in Allegheny County.

The Fifth Judicial District of Pennsylvania should:

  • Immediately lift/postpone imposition of detainers of every individual held on alleged probation violations based on new charges or for technical violations;
  • Immediately modify bond of those held pretrial to nonmonetary and/or “release on their own recognizance” (‘ROR’);
  • Cease parole and probation revocation proceedings and terminate long tails;
  • Release all individuals with less than 6 months left in their sentence;
  • Release all individuals incarcerated for misdemeanors, whether pretrial or serving a sentence;
  • Release all individuals incarcerated for drug possession, sex work, and other nonviolent offenses;
  • Release all elderly individuals (over 50) and those at high risk of vulnerability, including but not limited those with respiratory conditions, heart conditions, diabetes, cancer, or other autoimmune diseases;
  • Release all pregnant individuals;
  • Transfer all non-releasable individuals to less restrictive forms of custody, including electronic monitoring and house arrest, where individuals can self-quarantine as needed.
  • Review individuals on probation or otherwise confined to halfway houses and release those individuals to home confinement automatically;
  • Terminate in-person reporting for those on pre- or post-trial supervision indefinitely.

The District Attorney of Allegheny County should:

  • Postpone the convening of grand juries;
  • Affirmatively support and not oppose the above-mentioned motions and petitions for relief;
  • Withdraw and drop all pending charges for drug possession, sex work, and other nonviolent offenses.

Law enforcement agencies throughout Allegheny County should:

  • Recall all pending warrants (that have not been served/executed);
  • Delay dates of voluntary surrender for incarceration sentences as requested by defense;
  • Immediately cease arresting individuals for all offenses not directly implicating public safety or an individual’s physical well-being;
  • Immediately cease arrests on warrants for probation violations — technical and otherwise;
  • Avoid new bookings into the jail at all costs, limiting incarceration for only the most immediate and severe instances of harm reduction.
  • Given the similarly dangerous conditions in immigrant detention centers and those jails and prisons that contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), we demand that Allegheny County Jail and county criminal justice officials NOT facilitate the detention of undocumented immigrants or the transfer of them to ICE custody.

County government and the jail administration should immediately:

  • Issue an emergency order making phone calls free for individuals detained at ACJ;
  • Ensure all incarcerated people have unlimited and free access to: soap, hand sanitizer, hygiene products, showers and laundry service, NOT monetized through commissary;
  • Provide free access to books and other reading and writing materials to all individuals incarcerated at the jail;
  • Provide additional commissary items at-, below-, or no-cost to all individuals, to boost morale during the trying times ahead;
  • Facilitate the use of video visitation, including confidential video visitations for attorney visits.

We call on our colleagues both in the Office of the Public Defender and in the private criminal defense bar to begin to file motions and petitions, in a pro bono capacity, for all individuals held in Allegheny County Jail under a probation detainer, unaffordable or unjustifiably restrictive bond, and serving long probation or parole terms.

We are demanding that all governmental agencies collaborate on this initiative in order to protect public health. Limiting the spread of COVID-19 — and its mortality rate — requires that we free as many of our neighbors as possible, as they are part of our families and communities. Protecting them and our greater community from avoidable harm go hand in hand, and this must be our shared imperative.

We are calling on other organizations in Allegheny County to endorse and circulate this statement and help shape the course of the response to COVID-19 in our community.

To sign on to the statement, email acjcovidresponse@gmail.com with the name of your organization or fill out via our GoogleForm.

Endorsing Individuals and Organizations:

Abolitionist Law Center

Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration — West

Take Action Mon Valley

Human Rights Coalition-Fed Up!

Bukit Bail Fund

Casa San Jose

Radical Youth Collective

Allegheny County Elders Council

Liberation/Ukombozi

New Evangelistic Ministries

Book ‘em

West End P.O.W.E.R.

Olivia Bennett, Allegheny County Council

Bethany Hallam, Allegheny County Council

Jews Organizing for Liberation and Transformation (JOLT)

Ratzon : Center for Healing and Resistance

Rep. Sara Innamorato, 21st Legislative District, Pennsylvania House of Representatives

Black Unicorn Library and Archive Project

Green Party of Allegheny County

ACLU-PA

1Hood Media

Chelsa Wagner, Allegheny County Controller, Member of Jail Oversight Board

Community Forge

Three Rivers Free Clinic for the People

Pennsylvania Prison Society — Allegheny County

Jerry Dickinson for Congress

Fossil Free Pitt Organizing Committee

Let’s Get Free: Women & Trans Prisoner Defense Committee

Community Gone Rogue

The Big Idea Bookstore & Cooperative

Pittsburghers for Public Transit

Thomas Merton Center

Words Without Walls

Richard S. Matesic, Attorney at Law

Pitt Prison Outreach

Put People First! PA

National Lawyers Guild — Pittsburgh Chapter

UNITE

Rep. Summer Lee, 34th Legislative District, Pennsylvania House of Representatives

Alliance for Police Accountability

ANSWER Coalition — Pittsburgh Branch

Alliance for Police Accountability

ANSWER Coalition — Pittsburgh Branch

Party for Socialism and Liberation, Pittsburgh Branch

Brilliantly Blessed Community Health and Wellness

Opportunity Fund

Pitt Legal Income Sharing Foundation (PLISF)

Veterans for Peace of Western PA (Chapter 47)

Bend the Arc: Pittsburgh

Peter Odell Campbell, Assistant Professor, University of Pittsburgh

Mark Lewis Taylor, Princeton Theological Seminary and EMAJ

Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal (EMAJ)

Steve Macek, North Central College

Bargaining Team 1199 NW Neighborcare Health

The Lusory

Prison Radio

CAIR — Pittsburgh

Teach The Change, Chicago

Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA) Pittsburgh

Old Meeting House

Pennsylvania CURE

Justice For Families

R.B. Wilk, Mobilization for Mumia

Beacon Prison Rides Project

Redwing Blackbird Theater

Prisoner Legal Support Project — Pitt Law

Black Agenda Report

Fight For Lifers West

Free Charmaine

Radical Youth Collective

Peace and Freedom Party

Trans YOUniting

Abolitionist Law Center

Written by

ALC is a nonprofit law firm fighting to protect prisoners, and a community organizing project aiming to build a world without prisons. abolitionistlawcenter.org

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