This marks at least the second person to test positive for COVID-19 inside the jail since the pandemic started. On March 27, an employee at the jail tested positive, but the infected employee didn’t provide direct care to inmates and has not been at work since the afternoon of March 19.
A press release from the county says the jail has had visitor restrictions since early March, and later that month, the jail “began active screening for fever and respiratory symptoms in all staff and contractors, as well as inmates and individuals coming into the facility at intake.”
All pods are now on split recreation to reduce potential interactions, says a press release.
Allegheny County Jail has released hundreds of inmates as part of a collaborative effort between Allegheny County judges, the Public Defender’s office, and the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office. The effort is meant to release inmates with non-violent charges and those who are vulnerable to COVID-19, as a way to stem the spread of coronavirus.
However, the jail’s population is still relatively high, limiting the chances proper social distancing is being adhered to at all times. According to the jail’s website, today’s population is 1,789, which is down from the average population of about 2,500. Earlier today, three Allegheny County Jail inmates filed a class-action lawsuit against the jail, claiming dangerous living conditions during the pandemic, including inmates unnecessarily living in cells together.
Advocates have been calling for large-scale releases for weeks, with the hopes of reducing the jails population by 75%. This would place the Allegheny County Jail population at about 625 inmates. An emergency bill calling for large-scale release of inmates charged with non-violent offenses was rejected by Allegheny County Council two weeks ago.
Allegheny County Councilors Liv Bennett (D-North Side) and Bethany Hallam (D-Ross) sponsored that bill. Hallam again urged county officials to take bolder action to reduce the jail's population, instead of the piecemeal approach officials have been taking. She said Allegheny County Courts must act now to release those held on cash bail, those alleged to have committed a parole violation, and those alleged to have violated probation by committing a misdemeanor and/or non-violent offense.
"The moment we had all been dreading and expecting has arrived," said Hallam. "The courts cannot continue their piecemeal and inadequate approach to tackling the very real threat this pandemic represents for our incarcerated community members, jail staff, and the entire region. Any more delay will cost lives."
Last week, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court also rejected a request by the American Civil Liberties Union to allow jails to conduct wide-scale releases of non-violent offenders but did say that county courts should continue to release inmates to stem the spread of coronavirus.
I’ve just received confirmation that one of the individuals incarcerated in the Allegheny County Jail has tested positive for COVID-19. I can’t help but think of how many opportunities Allegheny County had to prevent this from happening... I promise to never stop fighting for you— Bethany Hallam (@bethanyhallam)
Allegheny County officials say the jail is continuing to follow guidance from the county health department and will continue to practice “contact tracing and additional precautionary screenings will be conducted for all inmates who had been housed on the same unit as the individual testing positive,” according to a press release.