Terrell Leonard uses his body heat to warm the water in his cup. Huddled under a blanket, he brings the cup close.
He can see his breath.
Leonard, is incarcerated in a special isolation unit for COVID-19-infected inmates at Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) in downtown Pittsburgh.
The isolation unit―7D—provides an unsettling example of how the pandemic has impacted the nation’s jail populations.
According to a sworn statement by an incarcerated person at the ACJ obtained by The Pittsburgh Current:
While on 7D we were forced to wear the same soiled clothes for days. We rarely had a shower, and we weren’t given enough soap to wash ourselves, even though we often had to throw out trash with our bare hands. The conditions were horrible…We weren’t allowed to call our friends or family. We weren’t allowed to send or receive mail. We were denied commissary and access to the law box.
Viveca Jones, Leonard’s mother, doesn’t mince words.
“What (the warden) is doing there is torture,” she said. “They’re leaving inmates up there to die.”
Jones speaks with some authority. She recently retired after serving as chaplain for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections for four years. She worked on Death Row to ensure that incarcerated persons are treated with dignity and respect―something she says is notably absent for prisoners confined to 7D.
Her son’s plight now keeps her pacing the floor of her home every night. When Leonard told her about having to warm his cup to keep from freezing, she cried.
It was only after she called the jail warden, Orlando Harper, to ask why her son hadn’t been examined by a doctor, that he finally received a physician’s visit, she said.
Leonard believes he contracted COVID-19 while he was on 2D, a housing unit, or pod, at the jail. He alleges that a correctional officer who worked his pod tested positive a couple days before he began experiencing symptoms on Jan 28. Jail staff did not test him until Feb 8.
Leonard was transferred to 7D once he was diagnosed positive.
7D houses COVID-positive incarcerated persons, negative incarcerated persons, and incarcerated persons waiting to be transferred to somewhere else within the ACJ. At any given time, there can be as many as 40 incarcerated persons housed on this unit.
However, other housing units will be designated as “isolation” if there are COVID positive cases.
According to jail quarantine policy obtained by the Pittsburgh Current, when an incarcerated person tests positive for COVID-19 they are transferred to 7D.
Dr. William Johnjulio of Allegheny Health Network, a private healthcare provider, confirmed that COVID-19 symptoms at the jail are managed through acetaminophen.
“Treatment and medications are indicated based on the individualized assessment of the patient and determinations made by the clinician,” he wrote in an email. “For those patients who have been symptomatic, many have had mild symptom presentation.
“To manage common symptoms of COVID-19 such as fever, medications such as acetaminophen are administered,”
Jones said she told the warden that her son was cold. She said the heat wasn’t working in the jail. She told Harper about the cup of water and how her son had to warm it with his chest and hands so he’d have something to soothe his throat.
At least give my son a second blanket, Jones pleaded.
Jones and Leonard say that those infected with the virus are not provided special commissary–like hot drinks or soup―while symptomatic with the virus.
Incarcerated persons have to pay for beverages like orange juice or tea. Leonard tried to buy orange juice for the vitamin C, but the jail didn’t have any in stock. So he purchased tea.
Which he had to heat up with his hands.
Harper wrote in response to The Current that incarcerated persons are still able to receive commissary when positive for COVID-19.
“There is no additional diet consideration. Some have been ordered bottled water to monitor their fluid intake,” he wrote.
Harper denies that incarcerated persons do not have access to hot water in the jail.
Jones and Leonard also allege that incarcerated persons must buy their own cleaning products if they want to disinfect their cell. Jones worries that incarcerated persons will get re-infected because her son has not witnessed a cleaning procedure and because she says the jail is so poorly ventilated.
According to ACJ policy, when the positive incarcerated person is transferred out of the cell to 7D, they carry all their property, including unwashed blankets and their mattress, into quarantine.
Once on 7D, COVID-positive incarcerated persons leave their cells, walk to the shower area under supervision of jail staff, shower together for 15 minutes, then walk back to their cell.
All incarcerated persons on quarantine should shower three times a week, according to policy.
Incarcerated persons who have tested positive for COVID-19 shower on opposite days of incarcerated persons who tested negative.
Another inmate, Devon Mims-Carter, says that he, too, contracted COVID-19 from a correctional officer. He lost his sense of taste and smell. He was moved to quarantine with other positive incarcerated persons.
Mims-Carter says that incarcerated persons who are currently quarantined are being released back to the public while COVID positive. But he also says he was denied showers.
“They put us in quarantine, but they didn’t let us in the showers for four days,” Mims-Carter said.
“They didn’t let us wash our clothes, they didn’t let us wash our blankets. They didn’t let me get a new mask.”
According to Leonard, “There were many inmates like myself who were scared to report our symptoms or ask to be tested because we had heard how badly infected inmates were treated on 7D. Our fears about 7D were proven true after many of us were transferred to that pod…To date, no one from ACJ or the Allegheny Health Department has asked me who I have been in contact with even though I tested positive for COVID-19. I fear for my health and life if I remain at ACJ.”
The jail’s website tells a different story.
“The health, safety and welfare of the inmates and our staff remains our biggest priority,” says the website, noting that healthcare and other personnel at the Allegheny County Jail “were among the first employees in the county to begin receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.”
As of March 7, 316 of the nearly 2,200 jail inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the outbreak, and 50 COVID-19 inmates were still being held in the facility, according to jail figures.
Jones continues to worry about her son’s well-being. She feels Leonard will be infected again due to lack of testing and social distancing at the jail.
Ex-Chaplain Jones recalls she told Warden Harper, “I am going to pray for you because you’re going to need it when your turn comes. You’re also going to need mercy one day. We all need it one day.”
This is a condensed and edited version of a story written by Brittany Hailer, Managing Editor of the Pittsburgh Current and a 2020-2021 John Jay/Langeloth Justice Reporting Fellow. The article was part of a series produced as part of her fellowship project. Other parts of the series can be accessed here. Brittany can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.