Pa. county jail operates without solitary confinement
Allegheny County Jail reports compliance with a county referendum that limits solitary confinement for inmates
By Anthony Salamone
The Morning Call
ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Efforts to end solitary confinement in Lehigh County Jail may have been unsuccessful, but one Pennsylvania county is showing how jails could operate without the practice.
In December 2021, Allegheny County became the first jurisdiction in the U.S. to ban nearly all uses of solitary confinement, after a voter referendum the previous May.
The vote followed years of abuse allegations and multiple suicides at the county jail, according to organizations such as solitarywatch.org, which monitor the practice.An Allegheny County Jail spokesperson declined to make anyone available for an interview on what effect the referendum has had on solitary confinement. Instead, she pointed to monthly online statistics on the jail’s compliance. The county is required to provide monthly reports to a Jail Oversight Board regarding pod lockdowns, intake segregation and pod segregation. Monthly reports began in June 2021.
An eight-page executive summary for August, the latest month available, shows the facility was on full-day, full lockdowns Aug. 13 and 27, and had full lockdowns on portions of eight other days. Under a lockdown, out-of-cell time is limited. There were also full- or partial-day individual pod lockdowns on 18 days due to “safety and security” reasons.
Under the heading “Intake Segregation Report,” the jail said there were no instances of any inmates being isolated in a cell alone for more than 20 hours during the month.
The report also lists more than 30 individuals under a “pod segregation report” that indicates inmates who did not receive at least four hours of out-of-cell time a day. In all but four instances, the reasons were listed as “medical.” In addition, the report says, one inmate received less out-of-cell time due to a court appearance, and three lost out on time due to behavior “that made it impossible to permit out-of-cell time while ensuring the security and safety of correctional officers and other incarcerated individuals.”
“Let me be clear: We are in full compliance with [the] referendum and Chapter 205, and are not circumventing the ban,” Warden Orlando L. Harper said in a 2022 news release. Harper retired Sept. 29 as warden. Chapter 205 is part of the county code regarding solitary confinement that was amended after the referendum passed.
Still, some people, such as Tanisha Long of the Abolitionist Law Center in Pittsburgh, remain critical of the jail’s use of segregation.
“For people suffering mental health issues, they use it punitively,” said Long, a community organizer with the law center. She said inmates are sometimes placed in near-24 hour solitary “when the referendum made it clear it was only to be used in emergencies with a 48-hour time limit.”
The pod segregation report for August lists two inmates who saw reduced out-of-cell time for eight days, although the report notes there were three “episodes” that led to that reduction. It does not include any additional details. Ten inmates saw reduced time between three and six days.
Besides the Allegheny County voter referendum, New York is one of several states that in recent years approved laws limiting solitary to 15 days or less, and similar bills have been introduced in many other states, according to the Unlock The Box advocacy campaign.
Morning Call reporter Anthony Salamone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.