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Officials Urged to Prevent COVID-19 Spread in Allegheny County Jail

About 100 people a day are admitted to the Allegheny County Jail. (LIGHTFIELD STUDIOS/Adobe Stock)
About 100 people a day are admitted to the Allegheny County Jail. (LIGHTFIELD STUDIOS/Adobe Stock)
March 23, 2020

PITTSBURGH -- Releasing prisoners from the Allegheny County Jail would reduce the risk of the coronavirus spreading inside the facility and in the community at large, say some elected officials and prison-reform advocates.

And they're asking County Executive Rich Fitzgerald to pay attention.

About 2,000 people are being held in what critics call crowded and unsanitary conditions at the jail. More than half can't afford bail or are being held for technical parole violations.

In a telephone news conference, Bret Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center, says the jail is certain to act as an incubator for the spread of COVID-19.

"We are calling on all those who have a role in keeping people and releasing people from the jail to take measures to empty out the population," he states.

They're calling for the release of people at high risk from COVID-19 and those who are low risk to the community, including people who simply can't afford their bail for nonviolent offenses.

Each day about 100 people are booked into the Allegheny County Jail.

Sara Rose, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, points out that drastically reducing that number is imperative to prevent the spread of the coronavirus inside the jail.

"It will also keep the community safer by reducing the number of people admitted to the jail for a short period of time, where they'll be in close contact with many other people and then, released back to their homes and families," she states.

Rose says for those accused of nonviolent offenses, courts can eliminate cash bail, police can issue summons rather than make arrests, and the district attorney can withdraw charges.

County Council member Bethany Hallam, who serves on the Jail Oversight Board, plans to introduce an emergency ordinance to significantly reduce the jail population by releasing those who don't pose a risk to the community, allowing them to return to their homes.

"Where they have access to medication and cleaning supplies, and hygiene products that keep them safe, as entitled to any person on this planet," she states.

Hallam adds that Fitzgerald spoke at a forum on jail reform last December and expressed a desire to reduce the Allegheny County Jail population to fewer than 600.

Disclosure: ACLU of Pennsylvania contributes to our fund for reporting on Civil Rights, Human Rights/Racial Justice, Immigrant Issues, LGBTQIA Issues. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Andrea Sears, Public News Service - PA