Editor’s note: This story includes a reference to sexual assault and offensive activities by hate groups. Shannon Foley Martinez was 15 when she became a neo-Nazi.
Growing up in a dysfunctional family, she had always felt like an outsider. The feeling reached a crisis level when, at the end of her freshman year, she was sexually assaulted. “I took all of this unprocessed trauma and completely pushed it down,” said Foley Martinez, who now helps others leave far-right hate groups. “I felt so worthless.
Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board members are learning about key issues at the jail through the media, according to comments from two members at their monthly meeting Thursday.
Following a PublicSource investigation about missed medications and long wait times to receive medical care at the jail, board member Bethany Hallam requested during the meeting that the board regularly receive jail schedules and medical waitlists that PublicSource used in its investigation. “I learned a lot of the things I’ve been wanting to learn about things happening at the jail through a journalist, and that has been happening a lot lately,” Hallam said. “And as much as I love local journalism and respect our local journalists, I just kind of hate being blindsided by them, especially as a member of the Jail Oversight Board.”
Hallam requested the queues of the jail psychiatrist, mental health specialists and medical sick calls, which show how many inmates are waiting to be seen. She also requested the medical schedules, which indicate the number of employees scheduled in the intake department; the healthcare shift reports, which include the number of inmates who have been waiting in the intake department for almost 24 hours at the end of each shift; and reports of any health-related incidents. Most of those records were obtained by PublicSource through open records requests.
The Jail Oversight Board is a nine-member body tasked with ensuring the jail is being managed properly, as well as ensuring the safety and health of inmates.
Someone you love is having a breakdown. They could hurt themselves. Who do you call? If 911 leaps to mind, you’ll likely get a visit in a few minutes — from police, whose training includes behavioral health but is focused more on addressing criminality. If you can remember 1-888-796-8226 (or 1-888-7-YOU-CAN), you’ll get a mental health professional from resolve Crisis Services, a 13-year-old unit of UPMC hired by Allegheny County to handle behavioral incidents.
Three formerly incarcerated women with disabilities are suing the Allegheny County Jail [ACJ] for being allegedly assaulted by a corrections officer.
In the federal lawsuit, which was filed on Tuesday evening, the women, who are being represented by the Abolitionist Law Center, Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project and K&L Gates, claim ACJ Sergeant John Raible assaulted them by burning them with chemical irritants such as pepper spray and OC pellets, strapping them into a restraint chair and, in one case, physically beating one of the women. The complaint also names Warden Orlando Harper and three other jail officials as defendants for failing to “adequately train, supervise and discipline ACJ corrections officers for such conduct,” which it claims has resulted in “the rampant use of unlawful and unconstitutional force” on inmates. The county does not comment on lawsuits or legal matters, spokesperson Amie Downs wrote in an email to PublicSource.
According to the lawsuit, Raible pepper sprayed 27-year-old April Walker when she was two months pregnant and slammed her face into the concrete floor, resulting in her hospitalization. Walker has asthma, bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression and PTSD, the complaint says.
It also claims that Raible pepper sprayed 35-year-old LaVonna Dorsey while she was locked naked in a “strip cage” and then placed her in a restraint chair, causing injuries. Dorsey has chronic asthma, severe anxiety, depression and PTSD, according to the complaint.
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.
Women hold nearly half of the seats on major boards and commissions that make many decisions in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, and Black residents hold more than one in every four, PublicSource has found as part of the year-long Board Explorer project. Both figures represent steps toward greater diversity in the region’s power structure. In 2005, women occupied fewer than ⅓ of seats on county and city boards, according to a study done then by Carnegie Mellon University students in partnership with the Women and Girls Foundation of Southwest Pennsylvania. Black residents held 23% of the seats for which the race of the member was known in 2005, but now hold 28%. Presented with PublicSource’s findings, diversity advocates were united in one sentiment: Progress is no cause for complacency.
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.
No personal visitors, hardly any time for inmates outside of their cells and chronic vacancies in mental health and health staff raise concerns that the mental health of Allegheny County Jail [ACJ] inmates is deteriorating, according to inmates recently incarcerated there, family members of current inmates, advocates and current and former ACJ staff.
As incidents both local and national continue to raise questions about policing and mental health, the Allegheny County Department of Human Services [DHS] has quietly convened a panel that appears to be reviewing the public safety and social services response to behavioral health crises. The 28-member Allegheny County Crisis Response Stakeholder Group held its first full meeting, virtually, on Friday. The meeting included remarks by DHS staff including Director Marc Cherna, plus county Emergency Services Chief Matt Brown, Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert, and representatives of The Pittsburgh Foundation* and the Council of State Governments Justice Center. Its formation does not appear to have been heralded by any public announcement. It comes as the city sees near-daily protests demanding changes in policing, sometimes including calls to “defund” police, which some describe as the shift of law enforcement resources to human services or community building.