On April 7, 2020, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Abolitionist Law Center, Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, and the law firm Dechert LLP filed a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of three people detained at the Allegheny County Jail, arguing that conditions at the jail increase the likelihood that they will contract COVID-19. The lawsuit was filed against Allegheny County and jail Warden Orlando Harper.
Although the jail’s population dropped 20 percent in the weeks after the declaration of the national emergency, Harper has consolidated how people in the jail are housed, leaving at least an entire floor empty and actually increasing the number of people who are housed in a cell with another person. Jail administrators have yet to implement best practices recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to minimize the spread of COVID-19 in correctional facilities. By failing to do so, the county is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The lawsuit seeks to represent all people who are or will be detained at the jail pretrial, with subclasses for those who are at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 due to age, medical condition, or disability. The plaintiffs are seeking their release and the release of all medically vulnerable people. Further, the lawsuit asks the court to order Harper to implement the CDC recommendations to prevent spreading of the disease.
On May 27, 2020, a federal court approved a consent order in which the county agreed to specific mitigation practices to decrease the spread of COVID-19 at the jail, including housing people newly admitted to the jail separately from the rest of the population for two weeks, housing medically vulnerable people in single cells, and requiring jail staff to wear masks during their shifts.