Bret Grote: The travesty of the Allegheny County Jail
Nelson Mandela said, “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
By every measure, the Allegheny County Jail fails this test. Meant to be a place of punishment for people convicted of crimes, the jail is instead a human warehouse. A 2016 study found that as many as 81% of those held in the jail have not been convicted of a crime.
As a civil rights attorney, I have had an intimate view of the atrocities that make up daily life in the Allegheny County Jail. These include pepper spray and Taser attacks on people with severe mental health diagnoses; routine placement of people with serious mental illness and intellectual disability in solitary confinement; jailing of pregnant women — who never get enough food — for minor probation violations; consistent failures to provide medical and mental health treatment; and routine days-long lockdowns that keep the entire jail trapped in their cells for no reason whatsoever.
Laypeople might think that incarceration is reserved for those who present a risk to public safety. Not so in Allegheny County, whose jail is a first response to poverty, substance abuse and mental health issues.
The jail is full of people who cannot make bail or who await hearings on minor probation violations. But, the demographic makeup of the people sitting in the jail is utterly scandalous: Although 13% of Allegheny County is black, black people make up 49% of the jail. This is an apartheid justice system.
Mental health diagnoses, poverty and blackness are not crimes, and continuing to treat them as such wreaks enormous damage upon our entire society. Every person in jail is rendered helpless to contribute to their family income or stability. The families of incarcerated people are at higher risk of losing their housing.
The taxpayers of Allegheny County bear the tremendous burden generated by the needless incarceration of thousands of people every month. The jail has a recommended budget of nearly $87 million this year, up from just over $81 million last year. This extraordinary sum could be spent on providing desperately needed social services.
And while the county dumps millions of dollars into locking up people for petty probation violations, it has become one of the few places to see a rising violent crime rate. Ending aggressive prosecution and jailing would allow for reinvestment in programs that create healthy and thriving communities: education, medical and mental health services, recreational and cultural spaces, environmental restoration.
Allegheny County needs dramatic, wholesale change in its criminal legal system. Reducing incarceration is key to improving public safety. For too long the county has failed to recognize that every person has inherent worth and potential for transformation, and must be treated with dignity and respect. Instead, it has squandered limited resources.
We need to insist that public money be used for other services and programs better suited for creating healthier and safer communities. We should demand such a system from elected officials: the district attorney, the county executive, the mayor, the sheriff and the judges. Each plays a part in perpetuating this travesty and each has a responsibility to fix it.