PITTSBURGH – In the wake of the global pandemic, three people detained at the Allegheny County Jail filed a federal class action lawsuit today against the county, seeking relief from the dangerous conditions putting them and others at risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus and the disease COVID-19. The three plaintiffs are represented by the Abolitionist Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, and the law firm Dechert LLP.
The Allegheny County Jail reports the release of as many as 600 people in recent weeks, reflecting a 20 percent population drop and earning the county praise for its efforts. However, as the lawsuit notes, Warden Orlando Harper has failed to properly take advantage of the decrease in the population by consolidating housing units in the jail, leaving at least one entire floor completely unoccupied and continuing to house two people per cell.
“When the prime directive for protecting public health and limiting the risk of transmission of COVID-19 is social distancing, the decision of Warden Harper to increase population density inside the jail defies belief,” said Bret Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center. “It is reckless and will result in higher infection rates and deaths in the jail and throughout the county unless there is immediate judicial intervention.”
As the nation responds to the pandemic in accordance with the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf has issued a stay-at home order and urged Pennsylvania residents to adhere to guidelines that people incarcerated in the jail are unable to follow.
The dimensions of the cells make it impossible for people in jail to follow the CDC recommendation of remaining six feet away from others. And the people in the cells share a toilet, sink, and a desk, increasing the likelihood of transmission of the virus.
“Jails are already the epicenter of COVID-19 spread in cities across the country, with infection rates at Rikers Island in New York seven times higher than the city itself,” said Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, managing attorney at the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. “ACJ’s inability to follow CDC guidelines for a virus as deadly as COVID-19 will have devastating consequences for our clients and the community.”
In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs argue that their health conditions, including hepatitis C, hypertension, and asthma, increase the likelihood that they will suffer serious or permanent harm from COVID-19. They argue that jail administrators are in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as all of the plaintiffs are being held pretrial on minor charges.
”Our clients are at heightened risk because of their underlying health conditions,” said Sara Rose, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “The leadership at the jail has been utterly irresponsible and has failed to protect them. We need the court to intervene to guarantee our clients’ rights and their safety.”
The lawsuit seeks to represent all people who are currently and will be held at the Allegheny County Jail during the COVID-19 crisis, including those who are considered high risk for contracting COVID-19 due to age, medical condition, or disability. The plaintiffs have asked the court to order their release and the release of people in the jail who are medically vulnerable. In addition, the lawsuit requests that the court order Harper to implement practices in the jail that are consistent with CDC guidelines.
The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania and names Harper and Allegheny County as defendants. The plaintiffs are represented by Bret Grote, Quinn Cozzens, and Jackie Kurin of the Abolitionist Law Center; Sara Rose and Witold Walczak of the ACLU of Pennsylvania; David Fathi of the ACLU National Prison Project; Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project; Sozi Tulante, Will Sachse, Cory Ward, Ryan Moore, and Rebecca Rosenberg of Dechert LLP; and volunteer attorneys Jules Lobel and Swain Uber. A copy of the complaint is available at aclupa.org/Graham.