The Allegheny County Jail is one of the most populated county correctional facilities in Pennsylvania and, like most jails, houses a large number of individuals with mental health struggles. Yet the jail has been medically understaffed for years, a problem that results in serious consequences for incarcerated people. PublicSource is examining concerns raised about the treatment of incarcerated people with mental health issues and how chronic staffing shortages impact care.
The absence of counseling and reliance on medication is a common occurrence in facilities like ACJ, where many incarcerated people would benefit from therapy, but problems like high population turnover, understaffing and lack of funding make delivering care complicated.
Editor’s note: This story was produced for Sunshine Week, an annual, nationwide celebration of government transparency and access to information taking place March 14-20. PublicSource frequently uses the Right-to-Know law, as it did in this story, and encounters varying degrees of transparency by Pennsylvania’s public agencies.
To better understand how incarcerated people are cared for, PublicSource sought all Allegheny County Jail policies related to mental health, suicide prevention, administration of medications and accommodations for people with disabilities through a public records request in September.
Of the six policies the county provided, five were almost entirely redacted with thick black lines, disclosing only the title and the policy’s first few sentences. The county justified the redactions by stating in an accompanying letter that the information “would be reasonably likely to result in a substantial and demonstrable risk of physical harm to or the personal security of an individual.”
Watch a video of PublicSource reporter Juliette Rihl explaining this storyPublicSource appealed the redactions to the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records; the appeal was denied. But the five other most populated counties in the state provided similar policies, either in full or in part, providing insight into exactly the type of information withheld locally.
Lancaster and Delaware counties provided PublicSource their policies in full, while Bucks County provided one policy in full and four more policies with light or moderate redactions. Montgomery County provided its suicide prevention and pharmaceutical operations policies in full and two other policies with redactions.
Christopher West sleeps in two thermal shirts and two pairs of socks. He moved his cot to the center of his cell, on the floor and away from the walls where it’s coldest. Still, West said it’s hard to stay warm in the Allegheny County Jail. On Feb. 8, West asked a friend to post a message on his Instagram: “Somebody tell THEM to turn on the heat in the ACJ we freezing,” the post read.
Parts of the Allegheny County Jail are plagued with frigid temperatures, according to jail complaints, incarcerated people and their loved ones — a problem that has been raised to jail leadership and the jail board.
Update (3/6/2021): At the March 4 Jail Oversight Board meeting, Warden Orlando Harper reported to the board about restraint chair use. It was a deviation from what he typically shares at these meetings in response to the board asking for more information on how the jail uses the device following the original PublicSource report below. He said the jail used the restraint chair 18 times in February. He promised that, at the April board meeting, he would provide the March count and include the number of times a person with a mental health condition is placed in the chair. Harper also agreed to show board members the restraint chair forms that are completed each time the chair is used. Jail leadership also provided the board the healthcare queues the board requested following a PublicSource investigation about medical treatment at the facility.
According to the county, the book policy was changed to protect against contraband and ensure the jail’s safety. But inmates and advocates worry that the new policy will further erode inmates’ mental health by limiting one of the only outlets available at the jail.
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.