Lawsuit: Pennsylvania county jail punishes mentally ill

Pennsylvania

This Feb. 25, 2013 photo shows the Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh. Four inmates on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020 sued Allegheny County jail and mental health officials, alleging the in Pennsylvania facility offers inadequate treatment and medication for inmates with mental health disabilities and often punishes them with extended solitary confinement or excessive force. (Philip G. Pavely/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review via AP)

Four inmates on Tuesday sued Allegheny County jail and mental health officials, alleging the in Pennsylvania facility offers inadequate treatment and medication for inmates with mental health disabilities and often punishes them with extended solitary confinement or excessive force.

Lawyers with the Abolitionist Law Center spent over a year interviewing more than 100 current and former inmates about their access to mental health care and treatment.

They say they found a lack of privacy in the intake process, insufficient training for staff members on how to handle mental health needs, chronic understaffing, lack of adequate medication distribution and bad medical record keeping. They also noted more than a quarter of people interviewed were forced into a restraint chair, and many reported disciplinary retribution — including use of stun guns, pepper spray and time in solitary confinement — for requesting mental health care or for mental health episodes.

Lawyers with the law center, Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, and Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis, LLP say the jail’s practices violate the Americans with Disabilities Act and rights to equal protection under the 14th Amendment by failing to provide adequate care and inflicting punishment for medical conditions.

“Superficial or non-existent diagnostic care, the lack of counseling or group therapy, medication mismanagement, and a culture of punishment rather than treatment amount to a system of mental health care that rarely provides any actual treatment. When treatment is provided, it is inadequate and fails to adhere to a minimally accepted standard of care,” lawyers wrote in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit filed in federal court in the Western District of Pennsylvania seeks class action status to add current and former inmates. The inmates are asking the court to order the facility to provide adequate mental health care and maintain an appropriate level of staffing to provide that care. They also ask the court to stop the jail staff from placing inmates in solitary confinement when they ask for mental health help or as a punishment for mental illness.

The Allegheny County jail has in the past had one of the highest suicide rates of large county correctional facilities in Pennsylvania. There were nine suicides at the facility between 2016 and June of this year.

One plaintiff in the lawsuit, Shaquille Howard, suffers from mixed anxiety and depression, PTSD and other mental health issues. He said he has been in solitary confinement for more than half of his three years at the jail.

Howard said he was told by staff that he could not receive mental health counseling or treatment unless he was suicidal. After attempting to hang himself in his cell, he was punished for what jail staff said was a false attempt.

On another occasion, Howard said a guard encouraged him to attempt suicide after growing tired of his repeated requests for help. At least one of Howard’s medications for night terrors related to PTSD was discontinued without notice or explanation, he said.

The lawsuit describes other incidents including Muslim inmates who receive mental health medication missing that medication for the month of Ramadan, when they cannot ingest anything by mouth from sun up to sun down because jail staff refused to make accommodations.

Another inmate in the lawsuit described being put in a restraint chair — a chair with arm, leg and shoulder restraints and sometimes hoods or helmets designed to immobilize someone — for 28 hours straight during a mental health episode, with no food or bathroom breaks.

“It is universally recognized that placing someone with these conditions in solitary confinement is inhumane,” said Keith Whitson, an attorney with Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis.

Amie Downs, a spokesperson for Allegheny County, said the county does not comment on open litigation. A message left for jail administrators was not immediately returned Tuesday.

The attorneys quote Michael Barfield, mental health director at the jail and a defendant in the lawsuit, as saying he acknowledged the jail offers support, but not treatment.

“Defendant Barfield has explained this intentional denial of care by stating that ‘at the jail, it’s not the environment to open up a can of worms, because you often can’t close it,’” the lawsuit states.

A 2017 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that nearly 44% of people held in jails had been told they had mental health disorders. Other studies estimate the number of people with mental health needs in jail is likely closer to 65% because of those who have undiagnosed issues.

Whitson said the inmates with mental health disabilities often see their conditions worsen while they are in the facility, making the transition back into public difficult and often leading to more involvement with the criminal justice system down the road.

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