Facilities across the region have begun releasing incarcerated people due to dangerous conditions. It’s not the first time.

By Charlotte Rosen

In February, 1976, Kenneth Owens-El, imprisoned in solitary confinement at State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh, wrote a letter to the public interest law firm Neighborhood Legal Services Association (NLSA). The letter described the “hellhole” conditions he had experienced while detained at the nearly ninety-year old Allegheny County Jail, including rat and cockroach infestations, housing units that were at turns freezing cold and desperately hot, and a “human warehouse” where incarcerated people with mental illnesses went untreated and abused. Owens-El later stated that he felt moved to take legal action against the jail after the death of Dennis Philips, and imprisoned person with epilepsy who died of a seizure due to the jail’s negligence. “Dennis’s death still brings tears to my eyes,” Owens-El told a reporter in 1987.

The NLSA offices happened to be located across the street from the Allegheny County Jail. When the letter arrived, it landed in the hands of Attorney Jere Krakoff. Krakoff, a public interest lawyer “laboring in obscurity” on unemployment compensation, took an interest in Owens-El’s complaint. After convincing the NLSA to take the case, he helped corroborate Owens-El’s claims with other imprisoned people at the jail, and took a tour of the facility to see the conditions for himself. Reflecting on a 1977 visit, Krakoff recounts the horror of the jail’s mental health facility, where he described seeing “seven naked inmates…strapped down to the cots like a row of human crucifixes.” In 1976, Owen’s-El’s case was consolidated with a class action suit filed by the NLSA. The suit, Owens-El v. Robinson, alleged that the conditions of confinement at the jail represented a violation of constitutional rights, constituting cruel and unusual punishment.

These days, the COVID-19 crisis has once again highlighted the dangerous conditions of incarceration—in Allegheny County and elsewhere. As a number of commentators have pointed out, prisons and jails make a cruel farce of social distancing, which is impossible in confining, unsanitary, often overcrowded institutions. Jails, in particular, pose a great risk to those detained, due to a combination of crowding and a high turnover rate, with hundreds of individuals coming in and out on a daily basis. In recent years, Allegheny County has taken steps to reduce its jail population and remedy the extensive racial disparities reported in the system. But the jail remained, up until recently, nearly full, with more than twenty-three hundred people imprisoned in an institution built to house, at most, twenty-four hundred.

Over the past few weeks, thanks in part to the tireless advocacy of the state’s anti-prison movement and broad concern about coronavirus “spread[ing] like wildfire,” the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) has released more than seven hundred people, primarily non-violent offenders and elderly detentioners. Jails in Metro Detroit and Chicago’s Cook County have also made releases. In Cleveland, the Cuyahoga County Jail released hundreds of imprisoned people—again, comprised largely of “low-level offenders.” The county executive, Armond Budish, said in a public statement: “They’re not going to put the county at risk. That is absolute.” (An admission that, for many, calls into the question the need to detain these particular individuals in the first place.)

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Even with these releases, however, jails are at high risk of incubating the virus. Activists warn that much more drastic reductions in population will be required to reduce the virus’s assault on incarcerated people, up to and including mass decarceration. “A prison is like a cruise ship on dry land,” Bret Grote, attorney for the Pittsburgh-based Abolitionist Law Center, said in an interview, where “instead of a captain, you have a warden, and the conditions are anything but luxurious.” The Chicago Community Bond Fund wrote a letter to Cook County claiming that continued incarceration “is an unacceptable risk to every incarcerated individual as well as public health.”

The mass release of detainees from the Allegheny County Jail might seem unprecedented, the product of a spectacular crisis that allows for the otherwise unimaginable. But these recent reductions are actually not the first time imprisoned people and their allies, with the help of the courts, have induced the jail to release its population. Class-action lawsuits like Owens-El v. Robinson challenged the constitutionality of deteriorating, brutally managed, and overcrowded conditions at county jails.

In many instances, they were successful, winning rulings in federal court. In Allegheny County, these overcrowding lawsuits eventually led to the imposition, however brief, of prison “caps” on jail populations that forced officials to reduce the number of people behind bars. During the hearings for Owens-El v. Robinson, testimonies from guards, nurses, current and formerly incarcerated people, county commissioners, wardens, and other penological experts shed light on the issues plaguing the institution. They confirmed filthy, infested cells, unbearable fluctuations in temperature, and lack of sheets, towels, and toilet paper. An expert witness called a “restraint room” observed by Krakoff on his visit “barbaric and inhuman” noting that he’d never seen anything like it anywhere, except at the Allegheny County Jail. The hearings also revealed the use of an isolation cell, called the “hole,” where imprisoned people at Allegheny County Jail were sent for being “uncooperative and/or disruptive.” The “hole” was small, dark, and lacked windows and a toilet; its occupants were stripped of clothing and refused blankets or sheets.

Flooded with such overwhelming evidence of institutional failure and violence against those incarcerated at the jail, U.S. District Judge Maurice Cohill, Jr. ruled, in 1978, that “in certain instances, the constitutional rights” of those imprisoned at Allegheny County Jail were violated. He ordered the immediate implementation of a variety of reforms at the Jail, including improving due process for disciplinary charges, prohibiting use of the isolation cell for punishment, improving psychiatric care (and restricting the use of restraints), and cleaning and improving the institution’s facilities.

Although conditions at the jail improved marginally, officials dragged out full compliance with the order. In 1979, Arnold Pontesso, an outside inspector from Texas appointed by Judge Cohill to monitor the jail, stated that the institution “certainly will deteriorate to a situation worse than ever” if the jail’s administration did not make swift improvements. Making matters worse, soon after Cohill’s order, the population at the Allegheny County Jail skyrocketed. Built to hold up to four hundred people, by 1981, its numbers had swelled to 571. With reports of people being forced to pack into the jail’s small gym, where they slept on cots, the county’s Prison Board warned the overcrowded conditions were “inviting disaster.” County judges even began sending pre-trial detainees to state prisons nearby, but those facilities were fast filling up too, suggesting the makeshift measure would not be sustainable for long. By the end of the year, the prison was overflowing with 645 imprisoned people.

The jail’s overcrowding crisis reached such catastrophic proportions that, in 1982, when Governor Richard Thornburgh announced two state mandatory sentencing proposals, they were met with hostility from the county’s Prison Board, who warned that the punitive sentencing legislation would worsen overcrowding at the jail. That this jail overcrowding crisis in Allegheny County made correctional officials wary of tough-on-crime policymaking during an era normally deemed the apex of law and order politics illustrates the severity of the county’s struggle with carceral incapacity, and the peculiar political ruptures it wrought.

With overcrowding spinning out of control, and against a broader backdrop of questionable compliance, incarcerated people at the jail and the NLSA filed another motion in April 1983. In doing so, they prompted Judge Cohill to make a surprise visit to the jail that May. Although he reported the facility appeared to be “cleaner” and that “prisoner conduct and morale were better,” he also reported that “another problem as arisen, however, over which no county official has control – overcrowding.” On the day of his visit, the jail’s population was at a record high of more than seven hundred people, in a nearly hundred-year-old institution built to house four hundred.

On May 25, 1983, Cohill ruled that conditions at the jail were “unconstitutionally crowded” and violated the Eighth Amendment. “The Allegheny County Jail is a catastrophe waiting to happen,” he decreed. To remedy the conditions, he ordered a reduction in jail population and the appointment of a Court Monitor to ensure compliance. Specifically, the jail had to reduce its population to just 530 people (still over capacity for the institution) by January 1, 1984.

By transferring some imprisoned people to State Correctional Institution Greensburg and others to neighboring county jails, administrators actually met the court imposed New Year deadline. As time went on, however, the jail had to release people in order to keep their population under the court’s limits. In February, 1984, 129 people were released to keep the jail’s population from exceeding the maximum. By November that year, the jail had released two thousand people without bail, a dynamic that angered some judges and county officials who believed these releases threatened public safety, led to no-shows at hearings, and undermined judicial authority. Due to the fine, the releases also meant that the county owed more than $8 million, although an appeals court would later strike down these fees, and the NLSA’s request to reimpose them would go unheeded.

Throughout the eighties, the jail would struggle to maintain its population limits. Judges also restricted the release of imprisoned people accused of violent crimes, allowing the warden to insist he had no more “low-risk inmates” to release without “endangering the public.” In 1989, Judge Cohill would increase the population cap on the Jail from 540 to 578. In 1992, he’d expand it again to 632, against the objections of incarcerated people at the ACJ who argued that improvements to the jail had been minimal, the abuses continued, and the living conditions cramped and inadequate.

In 1995, after years of a court-imposed population limit and mounting fines, Allegheny County eventually opened a bigger jail annex, which serves as the county’s jail today. The new facility on Second Avenue, sixteen stories tall and sealed off by highways, cost $147 million dollars. It has the capacity to hold four times as many people as the old facility. Overcrowding continued at the new institution, but the 1996 Prisoner Litigation Reform Act made federal court intervention into prison conditions more difficult and limited in scope. What had begun with Owens-El’s whistle-blowing about horrific conditions and treatment in the jail had instead been transformed into justification for a larger and shinier institution – a common, if unintended outcome in prison conditions litigation during the late twentieth century period.

But there’s another lesson here, too: that efforts to set people free from jails and prisons en masse, in Allegheny County but also across the nation, have a past. In the era of COVID-19, when demands to emancipate those behind bars become more urgent by the day, this history of prison overcrowding crises and prisoner conditions litigation suggests that the act of mass releasing imprisoned people to protect them from dangerous conditions is not unprecedented, and need not be politically unthinkable. ■



Charlotte Rosen is a fourth year PhD Candidate in History at Northwestern University. She has written for The Cleveland Review of Books and The Metropole, the official blog of the Urban History Association, where she is also an Associate Editor.

Cover image of the Allegheny County Jail by Tony Webster (Creative Commons).

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