Pennsylvania county jails are a death trap

Philadelphia

An unprecedented number of incarcerated people have died inside Pennsylvania’s county jails in the last two years, and the staggering rate of death continues to increase. 

Allegheny and Philadelphia Counties — which contain the state’s two most populous cities, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia — have reported the deaths of dozens of people in county custody in recent years. The vast majority of these deaths are of people awaiting trial, people who have not been convicted of a crime. In these two counties combined, a prisoner dies roughly every three weeks.

In Philadelphia, people organized a car caravan in February to protest deaths of their loved ones in the city and county jails. (WW Photo: Joe Piette)

The Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office announced in July that Victor Joseph Zilinek had become the fourth person to die in a Pittsburgh jail in 2022. He was only 39 years old, and jail officials have so far refused to release details surrounding his death.

In March, 26-year-old Gerald Thomas Jr. died of an apparent pulmonary embolism at the same facility. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 15)

Allegheny County Councilmember Bethany Hallam, who sits on the Jail Oversight Board for Pittsburgh, said in a statement: “We hear continuously, month after month, we have loved ones who lost their family members in the jail. Oftentimes we are told [by jail officials] there was no foul play; it was a “natural” death — I don’t know about you, but I don’t think it’s natural when we have 26-year-olds falling dead on the floor of the jail.”

After Zilinek’s death in July, Hallam tweeted, “Another life stolen inside the walls of the death trap that is the Allegheny County Jail.” Zilinek was the 15th person to die while in the custody of Allegheny County since April 2020.

Across the state in Philadelphia County, twice as many incarcerated people died during the same 26 months. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, 29 people incarcerated in county jails have died. But many of the reported deaths were not caused by complications due to the coronavirus.

“It’s like a waking nightmare,” said Mark Subher, who was formerly incarcerated at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia. The Inquirer reported that in the 22 months that Subher was incarcerated, two dozen people died there, making that “an annual jail mortality rate 77% higher than the national average. All told, there were at least 29 deaths since the start of the pandemic, including three by suicide, five by homicide and 10 by drug overdose. During at least two deaths, no staff were present.”

Workers World reported May 5: “Prisoners have been denied access to legal counsel and are not even able to attend court dates. Starting during the pandemic, there have been prolonged lockdowns, during which the people incarcerated were denied more than an hour or two out-of-cell time. Some people were not let out of their cells for days at a time, [which is] a violation of constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment. The entire system is the equivalent of solitary confinement.

“Many incarcerated people have complained of going days without food and sleeping on the floor for lack of beds. One man, who was due to be released, died when the sprinkler in his cell malfunctioned and flooded the cell with water. Despite the entire cell block banging on the bars and shouting for correction officers to step in, no one came for two hours.” (“Death sentences delivered before trials,” May 5)

Penn Live revealed Feb. 9 that Pennsylvania jail officials are now simply failing to report deaths to oversight bodies — and even to the families of those incarcerated! 

In response to this ongoing atrocity, the Abolitionist Law Center, based in Pittsburgh, has filed 62 separate complaints against Allegheny County Judge Anthony Mariani. These claim that the skyrocketing death rate can be attributed in part to judicial misconduct. 

In a July 5 statement, the ALC said, “practices of policing and punishment including traffic stops, pretrial detention, probation detainers and solitary confinement, support the maintenance of local ‘death-making institutions,’ a term coined by abolitionist Mariame Kaba.” The complaints mention the death of 26-year-old Gerald Thomas specifically.

In response, on July 21 the editorial board of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called for the leadership of the Allegheny jails to resign. “Whether Warden Orlando Harper was lying or simply didn’t know better, when he reported a false mortality rate for the Allegheny County Jail, really doesn’t matter. Either way, it’s another example of his penchant for dismissing problems instead of fixing them. As long as Mr. Harper calls the shots, the jail’s troubles will fester and grow. Among them: high death rates, costly lawsuits, chronic staff shortages, improperly housing transgender inmates, substandard health care and questionable practices on solitary confinement.” 

Teddie Kelly

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Teddie Kelly

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