Some pregnant jail inmates released after lawsuit alleging poor conditions
January 31, 2017 12:00 AM
Allegheny County Jail has eased discipline and started to work with courts to release some of the dozen or so inmates who are with child.
By Rich Lord and Paula Reed Ward / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Facing a lawsuit alleging poor conditions and cruel punishments for pregnant women, the Allegheny County Jail has eased discipline and started to work with courts to release some of the dozen or so inmates who are with child.
On Dec. 19, five inmates represented by Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center sued the county, alleging that they have been placed in solitary confinement, sometimes for weeks, for minor offenses like possession of a library book with pictures and envelopes inside of it, or having three pairs of shoes, rather than the permitted two pairs.
Warden Orlando Harper on Monday denied any special effort to get pregnant inmates out.
“Pregnant inmates come into the Jail and get released all of the time in the normal course of the operations of the facility,” he wrote in response to questions.
Allegheny County Common Pleas President Judge Jeffrey A. Manning, though, said that he has recently approved the release of several pregnant inmates.
Pre-Trial services estimated that about a half-dozen pregnant women have been released in recent weeks.
Judge Manning told Mr. Harper to put the names of those inmates on the bail list — which he hears each day at 11 a.m. — and said he would consider them for release.
“My job is to determine whether or not they’re eligible for release,” Judge Manning said on Monday.
In each of those instances thus far, the Pre-Trial Services recommendation has been for release. In instances where the women are known to have a substance abuse problem, Judge Manning said, they are released to in-patient treatment only, and can only be released from that upon successful completion of the program.
Following release, the women must undergo random drug screens.
There was one instance, Judge Manning said, of a pregnant woman having been released where the district attorney’s office asked him to revoke bond knowing the woman was a heroin user and that the fetus would be at risk. In that case, the judge agreed, and the woman was re-arrested and placed in in-patient treatment.
Judge Manning said that it is not unusual to release any inmate who requires hospitalization — provided the crime charged warrants bail — to save the county the money and manpower required to monitor a patient at the hospital.
“We’ve not changed the way we’re doing business,” he said.
Court records show that other inmates believed to be pregnant have had their bonds reduced from as high as $10,000 to nonmonetary, meaning they promise to show up for hearings, but don’t have to pay. The jail and courts appear to be considering whether there is a way to release around a half dozen other pregnant women.
Riva Lee DePasse
One of the lawsuit plaintiffs, Riva Lee DePasse, 27, was released from the jail Friday, “which is good because her due date is February 6,” said Mr. Grote, the lead lawyer in the lawsuit. She was locked up for misdemeanor drug possession.
Just one of the five plaintiffs is now in the jail. She gave birth outside of jail, but then violated the terms of her release and was again incarcerated.
Their lawsuit, in federal court, characterizes solitary confinement for a pregnant woman as cruel and unusual punishment, and demands an end to the practice, plus improvements to their nutrition.
Almost immediately after the filing of the lawsuit, jail upper management ordered that pregnant inmates no longer be locked in their cells for disciplinary reasons.
If an inmate accused of a misconduct claims to be pregnant, according to the procedure, staff must check the medical record and administer a pregnancy test if there’s any question. If the inmate gets in fights or has banned items, they can be transferred to the infirmary.
“A recreation plan to ensure adequate out of cell time will be provided when an inmate is transferred to the infirmary,” wrote Mr. Harper, characterizing the new policies as “under review.”
If they have committed a less serious misconduct but are pregnant, they can lose commissary, telephone or visiting privileges, but their out-of-cell time can’t be curtailed.
Mr. Grote said the loss of phone, visiting and commissary privileges — especially given the lack of adequate nutrition on the standard menu — “is contributing to serious psychological effects and health effects” in pregnant inmates.
He said nothing has been done to improve nutrition for jailed pregnant women.
Mr. Grote said that despite the measures taken by the jail so far, the lawsuit will continue to address the remaining issues and prevent “backsliding.”
The county has declined comment on the litigation.
The Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and attorney David Fawcett with ReedSmith are also representing the women. Monthly reports to the Jail Oversight Board showed the number of pregnant women in the jail in 2016 was at times as low as 11 women, and as high as 39 pregnant women in December.
Post-Gazette staff writer Kate Giammarise contributed.
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