PITTSBURGH – The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project filed a class-action lawsuit today challenging the cruel and inhumane living conditions for prisoners at the Fayette County Prison. 

The lawsuit alleges that the county-operated prison, built in 1889, is hazardous to prisoners’ health and safety.  Inmates and guards at the prison report serious pest infestations, including rats and cockroaches, black mold, exposed wiring, repeated sewage back-ups into inmate cells, lack of running water, and extreme temperature fluctuations during the winter and summer months.

The lawsuit seeks to compel Fayette County to build a new prison and make the current one habitable in the meantime.

“Fayette County officials have been aware of the appalling condition of their jail for years,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “In the 21st century, we should not be incarcerating people in 19th century prisons.”

Two of the four named plaintiffs, Miranda Arison and Dante Ripley, like the vast majority of inmates at the prison, are being held at the prison while awaiting trial because they cannot afford to make bail.  The other plaintiffs, Malcolm Dyer and Charles Smith Jr., are awaiting transfer to a state correctional institution.

County officials have acknowledged that the prison must be replaced. Plans for a new prison were abandoned in 2014.  Since then, the county has hired two more companies to assess the need for a new prison.

The most recent assessment, completed in May 2017, found the prison to be “dangerous to staff and inmates” and noted “many maintenance issues in the prison, including plumbing, electrical and HVAC problems.” Ultimately, the assessment concluded that the “prison is of such poor design and condition, it should no longer be used for the housing of inmates.”

In August 2016, the union representing the prison guards filed a complaint with the United States Department of Justice to request an investigation of the unconstitutional conditions at the prison. The complaint cited sewage leaks, mold, water leaks, pests, unsanitary medical facilities, structural problems with the building, lack of temperature control, overcrowding, and inadequate out-of-cell and exercise time for prisoners.

In September 2017, the prison’s main sewage pipe collapsed, flooding the basement level of the prison, where prisoners work and are housed and where the medical facility is located, with raw sewage. To reduce the sewage outflow, guards were only allowed to turn on the water for a few minutes twice per day, meaning that prisoners could only flush the toilets in their cells when the guards turned on the water, and went days, and even weeks, without showers.

Although a new sewage pipe has been installed, problems with toilets overflowing remain common in prisoners’ cells.

In addition to the environmental problems and general disrepair, the prison is frequently overcrowded and lacks space for classes, programming and religious services. Due to overcrowding, prisoners are routinely forced to sleep in cots—called “boats”—on the floor of the common areas adjacent to cells or in the prison chapel, causing religious services and other programming that occurs there to be canceled.

There is no space for prisoners to meet privately with their criminal defense attorneys. Instead, they must confer in holding cells lining a narrow hallway where guards and other prisoners must pass to get to the basement.

When prisoners are admitted to the prison, they are issued a single sheet, blanket, towel and jumpsuit. If they are not wearing undergarments when they are admitted and cannot afford to purchase them from the commissary, they must go without.

The prison relies on inmates to do much of the cleaning of the prison but does not provide them with adequate cleaning supplies. Women workers make only $4.50 per week while male workers make $10.50 per week and are the only prisoners allowed contact visits.

“No one should be forced to live in these filthy conditions,” said Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. “Fayette County is failing its citizens, both guards and the incarcerated alike, by refusing to address these obvious and life-threatening issues.”

The lawsuit, Arison v. Fayette County, was filed in the United States District Court in Pittsburgh. The plaintiffs are represented by Sara Rose, Witold Walczak, and Dylan Cowart of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, and James Smith, Louis Schlossberg, John Wixted and Kevin Eddy of Blank Rome LLP.

The complaint is available at aclupa.org/arison.