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Settlement reached in Allegheny County jail COVID-19 lawsuit
© WikiMedia (Michael Coghlan)
Settlement reached in Allegheny County jail COVID-19 lawsuit

Judge Cathy Bissoon of the US District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania entered a consent order Wednesday declaring that the Allegheny County jail must put medically vulnerable people within their own cells and keep newly admitted inmates within isolation for two weeks, consistent with Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) orders. Additionally, the plaintiffs’ lawyers are to receive weekly reports from jail administrators with a range of statistics on the jail, including grievances filed by the people who are incarcerated, and invoices for proof of purchase of protective equipment such as masks.

This order comes in response to the class action lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pennsylvania, filed on April 7, 2020, on behalf of three people awaiting trial at the Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh, arguing that they were placed in conditions that increased the likelihood of contracting COVID-19. The lawsuit is filed against the County of Allegheny and the jail warden, Orlando Harper, and raises violations of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The lawsuit concedes that the jail did decrease their population by 20 percent after the national emergency was declared. However, in direct conflict of the best practices announced by the CDC, the jail housed people in even more confined spaces, leaving an entire floor unoccupied, rather than spacing inmates out, and most were left with even more cellmates.

The ACLU’s lawsuit includes references of leaders within the medical and public health field who have all “strongly cautioned that people booked into and held in jails are likely to face serious, even grave, harm due to the outbreak of COVID-19” and that the best way “to combat the spread of COVID-19 and prevent serious harm or death to class members is risk mitigation.”

The lawsuit requested “preliminary injunctions, permanent injunctions, and/or writs of habeas corpus” that would require the jail to release medically vulnerable people within the jail. The lawsuit assured that this was agreeable “absent proof of recorded judicial findings that the individual poses a risk of flight or danger to others that no [detention alternatives] can mitigate.” The court was also asked to order the jail to adhere to CDC recommendations, provide education and provide a plan of action that meets CDC guidelines. Along with release petition review speed and court declarations of agreement with violations, the lawsuit made numerous demands all around increasing safety and following simple CDC best practices.

Bissoon acknowledged in her consent order that the settlement between parties in this suit only addresses some of the issues raised in the original complaint but feels the most severe violations are being righted.

For more on COVID-19, see our special coverage.