photo of ACJ inmates from a noise demo during the 2016 national prison strike
This report was originally published on 04.16.20 by
TORCHLIGHT — Anarchist News From Pittsburgh
UPDATE 2: Contrary to our previous reporting, prisoners in ACJ can buy postage stamps, but the process to do so is byzantine. A family member must access the prisoner’s commissary account to buy the stamps, which are then delivered to the prisoner’s cell. We do not know how long this takes, but suspect the wait is lengthy.
UPDATE 1: Pittsburgh Current has published an article featuring a current prisoner at ACJ that confirms much of our information, and further exposes the media coverup of the Covid-19 outbreak in the jail. 60 prisoners recently wrote and signed a letter to the media, which never appeared in any outlet. In addition a second jail employee, this one a CO who had contact with prisoners, has tested positive. ACJ has updated their statistics to reflect the new data, but has not made any further announcement. No other outlets than the Current have reported on the new case.
Torchlight has spoken with multiple sources with inside knowledge who describe increasingly horrific conditions inside Allegheny County Jail. Many prisoners have symptoms of Covid-19, but the jail’s web page indicates only 12 have been tested as of this writing. Not only have visits been canceled, but commissary purchases and most phone calls have also been cut off. With only two five-minute calls permitted per week and no way to buy stamps, contact with the outside world has become almost impossible, leaving prisoners with little ability to report on the inhumane circumstances of their confinement.
Torchlight has learned that ACJ has devoted an entire housing unit to presumed Covid-19 patients. Prisoners there are only allowed out of their cells for a few minutes a day to exercise and are not being taken to a hospital. They are also still being housed two to a cell, in cells far too small to allow for the six feet of separation recommended by the Centers for Disease Control. This is a violation of the jail’s own Covid-19 procedures policy, which states “The ‘at-risk’ individual shall be placed in a holding cell alone or with other symptomatic individuals if space does not allow for single cell housing.” Due to the recent population reduction at ACJ, space does indeed allow for sick prisoners to be single-celled, but instead all prisoners there have been packed into fewer housing units, making social distancing impossible.
Anyone who needs medical attention now has to visit the infirmary instead of having a nurse come to their cell, risking coming into contact with potential coronavirus carriers. In addition to being a public health hazard, this practice violate ACJ’s own policy for combating Covid-19, which states “Healthcare staff will be deployed to housing units to perform non-emergency healthcare requests, provider visits, or assist in other locations of the facility that have critical staffing needs.” Without being able to buy food at the commissary, the only dining option for prisoners is the cafeteria, where small tables and general lack of space add to the risk of infection.
The jail’s procedures do call for screening incoming inmates for fever, coughing, and other symptoms of Covid-19. However, they do nothing to address asymptomatic patients, such as testing for coronavirus, or the 14 day quarantine recommended by the CDC. New prisoners have been sent directly to work in the kitchen preparing meals for the entire population with no idea whether they were infectious or not. One source reports that only prisoners who hold jobs within the jail are having their temperatures taken. Any prisoner without a job has to visit the infirmary if they think they have a fever.
What sanitation is being done within the jail exacerbates prisoners’ vulnerability to Covid-19, because ACJ mandates the use of bleach. Fumes from the bleach solution used to clean surfaces are causing sickness and weakening respiratory systems already at risk.
In short, a major outbreak of Covid-19 appears to be on the verge of exploding in Allegheny County Jail, and jail officials are doing little except hiding their heads in the sand and issuing press releases. The 12 prisoners they have tested for coronavirus are 5 fewer than the number of ACJ staff who have received tests, despite staff being fewer in number. Of the 12 tested prisoners, four came up positive with one still pending. This represents at best a 33% positive rate, which is far higher than Allegheny County at large. Only one ACJ staff member has tested positive out of ten completed tests, a rate of 10%.
ACJ’s response has been to minimize the pandemic, hide conditions in the jail by cutting off contact with the outside, delay even the half measures they been forced to take as long as possible, and exaggerate their effectiveness. In this they have had the able assistance of most of the local media. For example, much has been made about the “over 900” releases in the last month – without taking into account the number of new prisoners who have been confined in that time. Pittsburgh Current (a notable dissenting voice) has released a timeline of ACJ’s response to the pandemic that shows a clear pattern of pattern of delay, lies, and callousness. Historically ACJ has dealt with serious medical problems by letting the patient die and dealing with the PR fallout later. In a pandemic that approach will be even more lethal than in the past.
Photograph from a local march supporting the June 11th
International Day of Solidarity with Long-Term Anarchist Prisoners in 2017