Release Nonviolent Offenders in Pennsylvania Jails Now Amid Coronavirus, Say Advocates

Protesters call for officials to release people from jails, prisons, and immigration detention centers in response to the coronavirus, as they demonstrate outside City Hall in Philadelphia, Monday, March 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

By Kimberly Lawson

April 9, 2020

One lawsuit filed against the Allegheny County Jail recently claims dangerous living conditions during the pandemic, including inmates “unnecessarily living in cells together.”

Jails and prisons throughout the state are finding themselves in uncharted territory as inmates and employees become infected with COVID-19. In Delaware County, 12 people have tested positive for the virus at George W. Hill Correctional Facility (GHCF), according to media reports. Across the state in the Allegheny County Jail, one employee and one inmate have also tested positive thus far. 

To prevent the deadly coronavirus from spreading through prisons and jails, state and local corrections departments are taking steps ranging from sequestering inmates to releasing low-level offenders in efforts. 

In March, 485 inmates convicted of non-violent crimes at the Allegheny County Jail were released to prevent the spread of the virus within the facility. Many of those released were considered to be at high risk if they contracted the virus due to pre-existing health conditions and other factors. They were released as part of a collaborative effort between Allegheny County judges, the Public Defender’s office, and the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office.

“We are releasing people who are nonviolent offenders who are at risk,” President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark said, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

RELATED: Coronavirus Could Wreak Havoc in U.S. Prisons and Jails

At GHCF, however, conditions are reportedly insufficient for containing the virus. Human Rights Watch (HRW), a non-profit organization dedicated to investigating reports on abuse worldwide, visited the jail in October 2019. As the novel coronavirus pandemic became a localized threat, individual prisoners and one unnamed guard spoke to HRW, describing “rampant overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.” 

Jail officials reportedly hold many people in one intake cell for days on end, going against state recommendations for social distancing. The guard told HRW the day they spoke that 59 people were housed in the intake cell at once. 

Since the onset of the pandemic, GHCF officials have reduced the inmate population from 1,880 to 1,387.

According to a press release from the Allegheny County Jail, visitor restrictions have been in place since early March, and “active screening for fever and respiratory symptoms” have been taking place among inmates, staff, and contract employees as well as new intake prisoners. 

The average population of the Allegheny County Jail is about 2,500, and there are currently 1,789 inmates being held. The relatively high population still presents challenges when it comes to social distancing, however. Current conditions and the burgeoning spread of the coronavirus prompted three inmates to file a class-action lawsuit against the jail on April 8. 

The lawsuit claims dangerous living conditions during the pandemic, including inmates “unnecessarily living in cells together.” Despite the free space inside the jail after the release of nearly 500 prisoners, inmates at the jail are still sharing sinks, toilets, and desks, and cannot maintain six feet of distance between them as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prevent infection, the suit states.

Last month, the Pennsylvania Prison Society filed a petition with the state Supreme Court, demanding the release of most people being held in county jails throughout the state in order to protect against the spread of COVID-19. Research shows that a majority of those incarcerated in jails are there because they cannot afford cash bail to be released before their trials. The petition argues that without the release of most of the 37,000 inmates in county jails, the virus is likely to “spread like wildfire through the prison population, correctional staff, and nearby community.” 

Allegheny County Councilors Liv Bennett and Bethany Hallam sponsored an emergency bill for prisoners’ protection against the virus, but the bill was rejected by Council. Hallam is still urging county courts to further release non-violent offenders. 

“The moment we had all been dreading and expecting has arrived,” she told the Pittsburgh City Paper. “The courts cannot continue their piecemeal and inadequate approach to tackling the very real threat this pandemic represents for our incarcerated community members, jail staff, and the entire region. Any more delay will cost lives.”


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