‘Dehumanizing and unlawful’: Allegheny County Jail sued over alleged mistreatment of inmates with psychiatric disabilities

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Outside of the Allegheny County Jail building

A federal class-action lawsuit was filed against Allegheny County and officials of the county jail. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

On Tuesday, a law firm and two legal aid nonprofits jointly filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Allegheny County and three top officials of the Allegheny County Jail [ACJ], alleging “inadequate” treatment and “dehumanizing and unlawful” conditions for inmates with psychiatric disabilities. According to the lawsuit, the jail’s practices violate the Fourteenth Amendment, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.

The lawsuit claims the jail does not provide meaningful treatment for individuals with mental health diagnoses and instead uses solitary confinement, irritant spray, a restraint chair and other forceful tactics.

“The mental health care system at the Allegheny County Jail is rife with systemic deficiencies that deprive people with psychiatric disabilities of necessary care, and indeed, make their conditions worse,” the federal court complaint said. 

The suit was brought against the county and Warden Orlando Harper, Chief Deputy Warden of Healthcare Services Laura Williams and Mental Health Director Michael Barfield on behalf of five plaintiffs who are currently incarcerated and have psychiatric disabilities, according to the complaint. The plaintiffs are represented by Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis, the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project and the Abolitionist Law Center.

County spokeswoman Amie Downs said the county does not comment on legal matters.

Grievances within the lawsuit include “superficial or non-existent” care, a lack of counseling, “mismanagement” of medications, understaffing of mental health professionals and “a culture of punishment rather than treatment,” including the use of a restraint chair, irritant spray and solitary confinement. 

In an interview with PublicSource last week, Williams said the jail does not conduct long-term therapy but does “brief intermittent therapeutic interventions” and “crisis management.” She said medication is the primary form of treatment in most correctional facilities, including ACJ, and that before the pandemic the jail was able to provide group treatment options.

Inmates’ mental health has been strained due to pandemic restrictions on visits and recreation time and a shortage of mental healthcare staff, according to individuals recently incarcerated at ACJ, family of current inmates, current and former staff and advocates PublicSource spoke with last week. Jail administration said they are working to hire more healthcare staff and increase the number of inmates allowed out of their cells at one time. Video visitation will be available in October, according to Harper.

Jaclyn Kurin, a staff attorney at the Abolitionist Law Center, said the suit is a result of a year-and-a-half long investigation and interviews with over 100 current and formerly incarcerated people, friends and family of incarcerated people and former ACJ staff. “We hope that this class-action lawsuit is a mechanism to change practices and policies at the jail that violate the people who are incarcerated, their constitutional rights and their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Kurin said.

“The motivation for the suit is actually pretty simple, and that’s in my mind, basic human decency...” said Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, managing attorney at the Pittsburgh office of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. “[C]onditions in jails and prisons, they’re traumatizing for everyone, but they’re especially traumatizing for people with preexisting conditions and psychiatric disabilities. Jails are just not the place for people who have already been traumatized by society,” Morgan-Kurtz said.

One plaintiff, Shaquille Howard, has several mental health diagnoses including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD]. According to the suit, he has spent more than half of his ongoing three-and-a-half-year stay at the jail in solitary confinement, had his requests for counseling ignored and was sprayed with an irritant after refusing to reenter his cell and requesting mental health treatment. 

A second plaintiff, James Byrd, suffers from anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and PTSD. According to the complaint, he has been in solitary confinement since 2018, remaining in his cell for more than 23 hours a day. He alleges that he has been denied mental health care, been placed in the restraint chair numerous times — once for 28 hours — and had his psychiatric medications suspended after being hospitalized three times for attempting suicide by overdosing on medication, the complaint reads.

The lawsuit states that 67% of the jail population is Black, despite Black people constituting only 13% of the overall county population. Over the past year, Black people have made up about 61% of the jail population, according to the Allegheny County jail population overview dashboard. “Conditions at ACJ cause tremendous harm that disproportionately impacts the Black community and those with psychiatric disabilities,” the lawsuit states.

It also notes that the incarcerated population disproportionately suffers from psychiatric disabilities. According to a 2019 report from the University of Pittsburgh Institute of Politics, roughly 75% of the jail population has a mental health or substance abuse issue.

“The systemic problems at the jail are affecting so many. Not only are individuals leaving the jail worse than they entered due to the lack of actual treatment at the jail, but the jail system actually makes their conditions worse by imposing punishment when individuals request mental health help, or when they’re manifesting symptoms of their conditions,” said Keith Whitson, managing partner of Schader Harrison Segal & Lewis’s Pittsburgh office. “So the way the system is set up, it just exacerbates their conditions rather than improves. And we have to put a stop to it.”

Read the full complaint below. 

Juliette Rihl is a reporter for PublicSource. She can be reached at juliette@publicsource.org or on Twitter @JulietteRihl.

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