Pittsburgh Progressive Groups Demand Release of ACJ Prisoners to Fight Coronavirus

A coalition of organizations and individuals has released an open letter demanding that Allegheny County Jail release most prisoners, among other measures designed to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the facility.

The letter is reposted below. To sign on to it contact acjcovidresponse AT gmail.com.


The rapid spread of COVID-19 has created an international public health crisis. It has now been classified as a global pandemic by the World Health Organization and declared a national emergency by the United States. In Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Wolf ordered all K-12 schools to close and prohibited all public gatherings of over 250 people, and most major universities have switched to online learning for the remainder of the school year. Both City of Pittsburgh Mayor Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald have declared a state of emergency in their respective regions. The nationwide attempt to “flatten the curve”—to slow the infection rate so as not to overwhelm our healthcare system—has led to the implementation of many measures that prevent large groups of people from congregating in close quarters.

However, these measures do not take into account one of the most vulnerable, highly concentrated populations: the county’s jail population, composed of over 2300 individuals packed into tight quarters and often lacking basic hygiene items. Additionally, prevalence of health conditions that increase vulnerability to COVID-19—including tuberculosis, asthma, HIV, hypertension, diabetes, heart conditions—are all significantly higher among the jail and prison populations. To make matters worse, the jail’s medical capacity isn’t nearly high enough to deal with a potential outbreak within the jail; it is woefully understaffed to deal with the medical needs of incarcerated individuals as is. Many individuals will likely need to be transported to and from the hospital, further increasing the likelihood of exposure and transmission.

Because 81% of individuals at the Allegheny County Jail have not been convicted of a crime, and the rest are serving relatively short sentences, there is a high turnover rate at the jail. Over 100 individuals pass through intake on a daily basis. The result is that many individuals will enter an environment where the risk of contracting COVID-19 is relatively high, and simultaneously many individuals will also be leaving and potentially spreading the illness to others. This high turnover also increases the likelihood that staff at the jail will contract and spread the disease. All of these factors converge to create the perfect storm for a potential COVID-19 outbreak to spread quickly amongst the incarcerated population. Emergency efforts to decarcerate the jail are more crucial now than ever. Doing so will decrease the likelihood of COVID-19 spreading amongst the ACJ population and staff and subsequently throughout the region. It will also make it more manageable for the jail to provide adequate medical care to those affected.

Other counties have already taken steps towards emergency decarceration, and Allegheny County ought to follow their lead to slow the spread of the disease in the region. San Francisco County’s Public Defender has announced that his office’s attorneys will be seeking the immediate release of pre-trial clients who have a high susceptibility to the virus, and the County’s District Attorney has instructed his office’s prosecutors to not oppose these motions for individuals not deemed a threat to public safety and to strongly consider sentences of time served in plea deals. Additionally, the judges, the Public Defender, the District Attorney, and the Sheriff of Cuyahoga County in Ohio, where Cleveland is located, have agreed to hold mass plea and bond reduction hearings in an effort to release as many people as possible from the jail and reduce the impact of potential outbreak of coronavirus among this population. Many other regions are calling for or implementing similar measures. Other countries are taking strong preventive action as well. Iran plans to release 70,000 people from its prisons. Counties in the United States, the country with the highest rate of incarceration in the world, ought to be taking similarly urgent measures. The potential of COVID-19 to spread among the incarcerated population was seen in China, where the incarceration rate is six times lower than in the United States. Over 500 cases of coronavirus were reported from just four prisons in China, two of which were in the region at the epicenter of the outbreak. It is imperative that public officials act now to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the region to prevent a similar outcome.

We are calling on the county executive, county council, and all of county government and administration; judges, prosecutors, and public defenders; police, parole and probation officers to all unite on emergency decarceration initiatives to halt the rapid spread of COVID-19 in Allegheny County.

The Fifth Judicial District of Pennsylvania should:

• Immediately lift/postpone imposition of detainers of every individual held on alleged probation violations based on new charges or for technical violations;
• Immediately modify bond of those held pretrial to nonmonetary and/or “release on their own recognizance” (‘ROR’);
• Cease parole and probation revocation proceedings and terminate long tails;
• Release all individuals with less than 6 months left in their sentence;
• Release all individuals incarcerated for misdemeanors, whether pretrial or serving a sentence;
• Release all individuals incarcerated for drug possession, sex work, and other nonviolent offenses;
• Release all elderly individuals (over 50) and those at high risk of vulnerability, including but not limited those with respiratory conditions, heart conditions, diabetes, cancer, or other autoimmune diseases;
• Release all pregnant individuals;
• Transfer all non-releasable individuals to less restrictive forms of custody, including electronic monitoring and house arrest, where individuals can self-quarantine as needed.
• Review individuals on probation or otherwise confined to halfway houses and release those individuals to home confinement automatically;
• Terminate in-person reporting for those on pre- or post-trial supervision indefinitely.

The District Attorney of Allegheny County should:

• Postpone the convening of grand juries;
• Affirmatively support and not oppose the above-mentioned motions and petitions for relief;
• Withdraw and drop all pending charges for drug possession, sex work, and other nonviolent offenses.

Law enforcement agencies throughout Allegheny County should:

• Recall all pending warrants (that have not been served/executed);
• Delay dates of voluntary surrender for incarceration sentences as requested by defense;
• Immediately cease arresting individuals for all offenses not directly implicating public safety or an individual’s physical well-being;
• Immediately cease arrests on warrants for probation violations – technical and otherwise;
• Avoid new bookings into the jail at all costs, limiting incarceration for only the most immediate and severe instances of harm reduction.
• Given the similarly dangerous conditions in immigrant detention centers and those jails and prisons that contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), we demand that Allegheny County Jail and county criminal justice officials NOT facilitate the detention of undocumented immigrants or the transfer of them to ICE custody.

County government and the jail administration should immediately:

• Issue an emergency order making phone calls free for individuals detained at ACJ;
• Ensure all incarcerated people have unlimited and free access to: soap, hand sanitizer, hygiene products, showers and laundry service, NOT monetized through commissary;
• Provide free access to books and other reading and writing materials to all individuals incarcerated at the jail;
• Provide additional commissary items at-, below-, or no-cost to all individuals, to boost morale during the trying times ahead;
• Facilitate the use of video visitation, including confidential video visitations for attorney visits.

We call on our colleagues both in the Office of the Public Defender and in the private criminal defense bar to begin to file motions and petitions, in a pro bono capacity, for all individuals held in Allegheny County Jail under a probation detainer, unaffordable or unjustifiably restrictive bond, and serving long probation or parole terms.

We are demanding that all governmental agencies collaborate on this initiative in order to protect public health. Limiting the spread of COVID-19 – and its mortality rate – requires that we free as many of our neighbors as possible, as they are part of our families and communities. Protecting them and our greater community from avoidable harm go hand in hand, and this must be our shared imperative.

We are calling on other organizations in Allegheny County to endorse and circulate this statement and help shape the course of the response to COVID-19 in our community.

To sign on to this statement, please provide your organization’s name and email address below or email acjcovidresponse@gmail.com – thank you.

Endorsing Organizations:

Abolitionist Law Center
Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration – West
Take Action Mon Valley
Human Rights Coalition-Fed Up!
Bukit Bail Fund
Casa San Jose
Radical Youth Collective
Allegheny County Elders Council
New Evangelistic Ministries
Book ’em
West End P.O.W.E.R.
Olivia Bennett, Allegheny County Council
Bethany Hallam, Allegheny County Council
Jews Organizing for Liberation and Transformation (JOLT)
Ratzon : Center for Healing and Resistance
Rep. Sara Innamorato, 21st Legislative District, Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Black Unicorn Library and Archive Project
Green Party of Allegheny County
1Hood Media
Chelsa Wagner, Allegheny County Controller, Member of Jail Oversight Board
Community Forge
Three Rivers Free Clinic for the People
Pennsylvania Prison Society - Allegheny County
Jerry Dickinson for Congress
Fossil Free Pitt Organizing Committee
Let’s Get Free: Women & Trans Prisoner Defense Committee
Community Gone Rogue
The Big Idea Bookstore & Cooperative
Pittsburghers for Public Transit
Thomas Merton Center
Words Without Walls
Richard S. Matesic, Attorney at Law
Pitt Prison Outreach
Put People First! PA

Pitt Mutual Aid Needs Your Help!

Pitt Mutual Aid is a newly-formed team of student leaders dedicated to providing up-to-date information and resources for the COVID-19 pandemic. A Google Doc form where people can request or offer help is available here. Also check out their Instagram page.

As a result of the institutional and business responses, as well as the crisis itself, COVID-19 has evidently displaced and disrupted many students’ and community members’ lives in the past couple of weeks. Pitt Mutual Aid has worked hard thus far to provide mutual aid with housing, transportation, storage, emotional and spiritual support, and community building. We have also provided social media and a response resource guide as a way for the community to be more prepared with centralized, up-to-date information and resources.

However, our team seeks to expand our reach and help those disrupted in an even bigger way. Groceries, monetary funding and aid, and more platforms for community are some avenues of growth coming soon. As a team of six college students, we understand that this severe situation requires its own care and work, so we are looking for volunteers to join our team!

To get involved, fill out the PMA volunteer form. 


Racial Justice Summit Organizers Working With Undercover Police

Multiple trustworthy sources have informed Torchlight that the organizers of the upcoming Racial Justice Summit are collaborating with the Pittsburgh police to arrange for the presence of undercover officers during the event. This move is in response to threats recently received from white supremacists, probably the same ones who attempted to disrupt an anti-war protest organized by Party for Socialism and Liberation two weeks ago.

Cooperating with cops to to combat fascists is a horrible idea for a host of reasons. At an event where hundreds of Black people and others who are particularly vulnerable to police violence will be gathered, it’s an even worse one. Just for starters, what happens if someone at the summit with an outstanding warrant is recognized by an undercover detective? Or someone on house arrest who is not supposed to leave their home except to go to work?

Beyond that, we should all remember that cops and Klan go hand in hand. There is a clear pattern in other cities of fascist provocateurs attacking vulnerable members of society – and then standing back and watching the cops arrest their victims. In Pittsburgh, police leaders are more cognizant of public relations than in many other towns, but this attitude does not necessarily extend to the rank and file. Remember the anti-Trump protest when the mayor had to intervene in person to keep riot cops from brutalizing the protesters? If the fascists do show up there’s no guarantee that the cops present won’t take their side.

Even the best case scenario, with no white supremacists and no arrests, inviting cops into discussions and strategic planning will give them information they may well use later to repress the very social movements that the summit aims to develop. There are many individuals and organizations in Pittsburgh who would have been happy to defend the summit against fascist incursions, particularly in light of the small number of potential nazis.

Anyone considering attending this year’s summit should be aware of the danger and take appropriate precautions. Torchlight apologizes for the lateness of this warning, but we were making sure we had the facts straight before we published. Anyone with more information is urged to contact us at torchlight@riseup.net.

Reportback From New Years Eve Noise Demo at ACJ

Torchlight has been pretty much moribund for the last few months, but we pledge to make a comeback in 2020! To kick the new year off, here is a reportback from an anarchist who went to the noise demo at Allegheny County Jail on New Years Eve. Get in touch with us at torchlight@riseup.net.

I got to the jail a little late, so a few folks were already chanting and making noise in front when I arrived. More people trickled in behind me, but I don’t think we ever had more than 20 total. We damn sure made a lot of noise though. There were drums, pots and pans, and one person even brought an electric keyboard.

After spending some time at the jail front entrance, we marched around to the lower level, in front of the courthouse. This is where it really picked up, because we could see prisoners flashing their lights on and off, while dancing and cheering us on. A couple of people brought out a banner, but unfortunately I didn’t get a picture of it (Ed note: We’ll let it go this once…). Cops coming in and out of the courthouse gave us dirty looks, but they never really bothered us. After almost an hour, we marched again, this time to the back of the building along the bike trail. There’s a guard rail back there that makes a really loud noise when you bang on it.

Not too long after that a few folks clustered up to sing a song, but I was hoarse from chanting, and starting to get really chilly, so I left. I think anarchists in Pittsburgh have been scared of noise demos since the one where a bunch of people got arrested, so I was glad this one happened. Hopefully they will become a regular thing again.

Preliminary Dossier on Michael Kenney


The challenge for the authorities is how to handle activists who subscribe to extreme beliefs, but who express them through peaceful, lawful activism.

Michael Kenney, speaking to the Independent


Michael Kenney is an Associate Professor at Pitt in the Graduate School of Policy and International Affairs since July 2011. Before that he was an associate and assistant professor at Penn State. According to his CV, he has received grants from The Institute of Justice (the research, development and evaluation agency of the United States Department of Justice), and the Office of Naval Research, among other agencies. Journals in which his work has been published include Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, The International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, and Terrorism and Political Violence, among others. Kenney teaches courses at Pitt entitled “Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism” and “The War on Drugs”.

Continue reading “Preliminary Dossier on Michael Kenney”