Lawsuit alleges ‘brutal treatment’ of people with psychiatric disabilities at Allegheny County Jail

The motion alleges severe and systemic violations of the U.S. Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act

By: - June 14, 2022 11:27 am

Allegheny County Jail (Image via Pittsburgh City Paper)

By Jordana Rosenfeld

PITTSBURGH —  Lawyers from two advocacy groups and a national law firm have filed a motion in federal court seeking class-action relief for all incarcerated people at the Allegheny County Jail who require mental health care.

The motion alleges severe and systemic violations of the U.S. Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act for what plaintiffs describe as the jail’s “failure to provide adequate mental health care and its discriminatory and brutal treatment of people with psychiatric disabilities.”

The motion includes “compelling evidence” found over a 20-month period of discovery that Allegheny County has violated the rights of incarcerated people with psychiatric disabilities by failing to provide them with proper treatment and subjecting them to prolonged solitary confinement and routine excessive force, according to a June 9 release from the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project.

“ACJ is failing to provide any meaningful mental health care to those in its custody, and in many cases is actually punishing individuals for seeking help,” Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, of the PILP, said. “We have seen evidence that people incarcerated at ACJ have suffered as the staff at best turned a blind eye and at other times assaulted individuals for manifestations of their mental illness. Their conditions have worsened, and ACJ’s already high suicide completion and attempt rates have continued to increase. It’s absolutely intolerable and inhumane.”

A spokesperson for the jail declined to comment on the pending litigation as a matter of policy.

Class action lawsuits seek relief for a large number of plaintiffs facing similar circumstances, especially if it would be financially impractical to pursue each claim as a separate case. To initiate a class action suit, a judge must first certify that the group of individuals in question form a valid class.

In the recent motion, the plaintiffs define their class as “all individuals currently or in the future incarcerated at Allegheny County Jail and who have, or will in the future have, a serious mental health diagnosis, disorder or disability as recognized in the DSM-V, including but not limited to depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or borderline personality disorder.”

The brief  filed in support of the motion provides “extensive” evidence that the plaintiffs say shows the ACJ fails to meet state and national standards for the provision of mental healthcare in “virtually every aspect,” including “grossly insufficient mental health staffing; minimal or non-existent training; ineffective intake procedures that fail to identify patient need; insufficient treatment plans; lack of counseling or therapy; and no quality improvement program to assess their own policies and practices.”

The brief also argues that instead of mental health care, ACJ uses force at rates that are “far and away the highest in the entire Commonwealth.”

According to county data, ACJ had 585 incidents involving the use of force in 2020 and 720 such incidents in 2019. The next highest county in Pennsylvania each of those years had fewer than half that number of incidents, the brief argues.

“This comprehensive investigation of the conditions at ACJ has reinforced what we already knew—the staff at ACJ is woefully unprepared and the system of mental health care at ACJ is appallingly and unconstitutionally inadequate,” says Jaclyn Kurin, staff attorney for the Abolitionist Law Center.

If it’s granted, the plaintiffs will be able to seek a court order providing remedies for unlawful policies and practices on behalf of all those with mental health conditions at the jail.

The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania and names former deputy chief warden of healthcare services Laura Williams, current warden Orlando Harper, former director of mental health Michael Barfield, and Allegheny County as defendants. The plaintiffs are represented by multiple attorneys with the Abolitionist Law Center, the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, and Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP.

Jordana Rosenfeld is a reporter for Pittsburgh City Paper, where this story first appeared.

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