PITTSBURGH – A federal judge approved an order today to resolve a preliminary injunction motion filed by the Abolitionist Law Center, the law firm Dechert LLP, Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania on behalf of three people incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail seeking changes to the jail’s practices to protect people in the jail from COVID-19. The consent order requires Allegheny County to follow procedures to reduce the risk of COVID-19 in the jail, including housing people newly admitted to the jail separately from the rest of the jail population for two weeks, housing medically vulnerable people in single cells, and requiring jail staff to wear masks during their shifts.
“We are pleased that Allegheny County has taken these important steps to protect people at the jail,” said Sara Rose, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “We hope that these measures will prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the jail while also treating people humanely.”
The groups filed the lawsuit following reports that, despite a population reduction of as many as 600 people from the jail by late March, jail officials had not taken advantage of the increased space to provide additional separation and instead had consolidated housing units. Since the lawsuit was filed, the jail has opened two more housing units.
In addition to adopting safeguards to reduce the risk of COVID-19 at the jail, the county agreed to provide information on a regular basis to the groups regarding jail population numbers, requests for medical care by incarcerated persons, grievances filed by incarcerated persons, and invoices for purchases of personal protective equipment.
“Dechert was proud to fight hard with our partner organizations to improve the conditions for the incarcerated persons in the jail, especially the medically vulnerable, who feared for their lives,” said Sozi Tulante, a Dechert partner and former Philadelphia city solicitor.
Since mid-March, 28 people incarcerated at the jail have tested positive for COVID-19 out of 67 people tested. The Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board voted 5-3 on May 7 against testing all persons incarcerated at the jail for COVID-19.
“Nationwide, prisons and jails have begun testing their entire populations with alarming results showing high percentages of asymptomatic individuals,” said Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, managing attorney at PILP. “In order to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 at the jail, Allegheny County should follow the lead of Philadelphia and implement a policy of universal testing.”
The consent order, which is enforceable by a federal judge, resolves the plaintiffs’ request for immediate action to force the county to protect people in the jail from the spread of COVID-19. The lawsuit continues for permanent injunctive relief, including seeking an order to reduce the population further, as the population density of the jail continues to present a heightened risk for rapid transmission and spread of COVID-19.
A copy of the consent order is available at aclupa.org/Graham.