The Allegheny County Jail. (Peter Radunzel / Fickr)

A ballot initiative in Allegheny County would limit how long incarcerated people can be held in isolation. Allegations of abuse in the local jail led activists to push for the reform.

Kimberly Andrews never expected that a stint in jail could be so terrible. She was 18 when she was first booked into the Allegheny County Jail, a facility in downtown Pittsburgh, more than three years ago. 

Andrews got into an argument with two guards and requested to file a grievance, but instead they locked her in a cell alone, causing her to have a panic attack.

“I was a kid in jail. I’m scared,” she said, recalling the painful experience. 

Andrews says her requests for help were met with suspicion, and she was told that she would go in “the hole”—solitary confinement—as punishment if the medical ward found nothing wrong.

“I was about to go to the hole because I wanted to see medical care. Because I said I couldn’t breathe, because I was having a panic attack. And I just couldn’t believe that,” Andrews told The Appeal: Political Report. 

When she was incarcerated at the jail again in 2019, Andrews was placed in solitary confinement. She says if it had happened to her the first time she might not have survived. The Allegheny County jail has a suicide rate more than 1.5 times the national average.

“Going to jail later and finding what all that really meant, if that would’ve happened to me when I was 18 and I first went to jail, I would have not made it. Like it’s that serious.” 

Now Allegheny County voters could ban solitary confinement in the jail. A ballot initiative sponsored by Alliance for Police Accountability and co-signed by over 25 other organizations, would prohibit holding people in a cell for more than 20 hours per day, with limited exceptions for health and security reasons. After receiving nearly 67,000 signatures, the initiative will appear on the ballot in the local election today. 

Brandi Fisher, president and CEO of the Alliance for Police Accountability, says the ballot initiative is the community’s way of addressing concerns about conditions in the jail. “The sole goal is to make sure that people are safe. Just because someone is accused of a crime doesn’t mean that we ignore their health issues and their health concerns. And Allegheny County Jail has a huge issue when it comes to being able to address people’s health concerns, and people are literally dying and losing their lives because of it.”

The jail has come under scrutiny for a range of problems, from reports of cells with frigid temperatures and cool air blowing from the vents during the winter, to COVID-19 outbreaks exacerbated by the notoriously poor medical care, to brutality and abuse. Pittsburgh’s Black residents are far more likely to face these conditions because of the jail’s racial disparities. Out of the roughly 1,700 people incarcerated at the jail each day, roughly two-thirds are Black, despite Black people making up only 13 percent of the population in the county.

Last year, the Abolitionist Law Center filed multiple lawsuits against jail officials over the facility’s lack of mental health care and the mistreatment of people who need it; 70 percent of the people incarcerated in the jail have been diagnosed with a psychiatric condition.

A press release concerning a lawsuit the group filed in September states that “People with psychiatric disabilities are tased, sprayed with [pepper spray], beaten, and placed in restraint chairs for several hours for minor infractions and for simply requesting mental health care. They are commonly placed in solitary confinement for weeks and months on end, often without having a hearing, in conditions universally acknowledged by correctional experts, courts and the United Nations as torture.” 

In response, Allegheny County said that “Force is not used to punish inmates; it is used only when necessary for the safety and security of the staff and inmates.”

The lawsuit alleges that in solitary confinement, people are restricted to a 10-by-7-foot cell, that they can be deprived of soap, toothpaste or a toothbrush, and that they are often restricted from programs and services.  They only receive one hour outside of their cell, sometimes handcuffed to a table. Allegheny County denied that people in solitary are deprived of hygiene products.

According to the Abolitionist Law Center, the Allegheny County Jail’s track record of brutality, especially against women, far exceeds other jails in the state.  In 2019, there were 720 reported use-of-force incidents—a per capita rate twice as high as the state average— and people were confined to restraint chairs 339 times. In 2018, the staff even used pepper spray against a pregnant woman.

People who were placed in restraint chairs told Public Source, a local publication, that they were left without food or bathroom breaks, pepper sprayed, and covered with a spit hood that affected their breathing. Some said they were even left naked and exposed.

Allegheny County Jail warden Orlando Harper did not respond to a request for comment from the Political Report.

Andrews says she has experienced the restraint chair, solitary confinement, and other forms of brutality numerous times during periods of incarceration over the past three years. She believes that the jail’s practices are long overdue for change. 

“Just because you have the power to watch over these people and basically be their authority figure doesn’t mean you can take advantage of that power,” Andrews said. “And that’s basically what happens at that jail.” 

The county jail board, which oversees the facility, has stalled on addressing these problems. And legislation to limit solitary confinement hasn’t made it far in Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled legislature. Fisher says the ballot initiative lets voters take the matter into their own hands. 

“It was a way to make change happen without permission, without the loopholes, without having to go through the institutions and structures that currently exist that we already know are rooted in racism and white supremacy,” she said. “We’re not ever gonna get the changes that we wanna see if we’re dependent on those folks to make it happen.”

Advocates for the ballot initiative acknowledge that incarcerated people could still be isolated for up to 20 hours a day if the measure passes. But Miracle Jones, the director of policy and advocacy at 1Hood Media, says that it is a place to start. “Legislation will not always be as all-encompassing as the most progressive of us want, but sometimes just the compromising solution is getting definitions that will not only allow for a referendum to be passed, but implemented.” 

Activists are rallying around other issues in this election, too. The ballot includes a Pittsburgh Home Rule Charter amendment to implement a version of Breonna’s Law, which banned no-knock warrants in Louisville, Kentucky. The amendment would require law enforcement officers to be in uniform or other identifiable clothing, record video using a body camera, and announce themselves when executing a warrant. They would also be required to physically knock and wait at least 15 seconds before entering a residence.

A high-stakes county sheriff’s primary election features former Pittsburgh police chief Dom Costa. After leaving law enforcement, Costa was elected to the state legislature, where he pushed for tough-on-crime legislation and once called people on death row “animals.” His opponent, Kevin Kraus, also has a background in law enforcement but is seen as more progressive.

In judicial elections, activists are backing candidates seeking to fill a quarter of the seats on the county’s Court of Common Pleas, where they could make a dent in mass incarceration. And organizers have brought issues like policing and gentrification to the forefront of the mayoral primary, where incumbent Bill Peduto faces a strong challenge from state Representative Ed Gainey. 

All of these races could alter the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and shift the political landscape toward racial and economic justice.

“Right now, we have an unprecedented moment to really rewrite and redefine what reform is and what liberation is for Black people in this city,” Jones said.

Fisher says the initiative to ban solitary confinement has catalyzed people who are affected by these issues to get involved. “It really showed people how we can govern ourselves, how we are the ones that make the decisions about our lives and our loved ones’ lives,” she said.

Andrews worked with the Alliance for Police Accountability to put the referendum on the ballot. She says sharing her story and advocating for change in the jail is part of her healing journey.

“I honestly don’t think I will be free from it until something’s done, until I make a difference. I don’t honestly think I will be able to breathe the same until everybody else can breathe the same. Because as of right now, somebody’s in that chair right now. Somebody’s in that restraint chair as we’re speaking. That’s how I look at life every day.”