ACLU suit alleges ‘cruel and inhumane conditions’ at Fayette County Prison
Raw sewage running through cells, roaming rats, roaches, mice and lack of running water are among “the cruel and inhumane living conditions” for prisoners at the Fayette County Jail, a federal lawsuit filed in Pittsburgh Tuesday contends.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that the county-operated prison in Uniontown, built in 1889, is hazardous to prisoners’ health and safety.
Inmates and guards at the prison reported serious pest infestations, including rats and cockroaches, black mold, exposed wiring, repeated sewage back-ups into inmate cells, lack of running water, and extreme temperature fluctuations during the winter and summer months, according to court documents filed in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh.
The lawsuit seeks to compel the county to build a new prison and make the current one habitable in the meantime.
“Fayette County officials have been aware of the appalling condition of their jail for years,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “In the 21st century, we should not be incarcerating people in 19th century prisons.”
Prison officials did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
Two of the four named plaintiffs, Miranda Arison and Dante Ripley, like the vast majority of inmates at the prison, are being held at the prison while awaiting trial because they cannot afford to make bail, Shuford said. The other plaintiffs, Malcolm Dyer and Charles Smith Jr., are awaiting transfer to a state prison.
County officials have acknowledged that the prison must be replaced. Plans for a new prison in Dunbar Township were abandoned in 2014. Since then, the county has hired two more companies to assess the need for a new prison.
The most recent assessment, completed in May 2017, found the prison to be “dangerous to staff and inmates” and noted “many maintenance issues in the prison, including plumbing, electrical and HVAC problems,” the lawsuit states.
Ultimately, the assessment concluded that the “prison is of such poor design and condition, it should no longer be used for the housing of inmates.”
In August 2016, the union representing the prison guards filed a complaint with the United States Department of Justice to request an investigation of the unconstitutional conditions at the prison. The complaint cited sewage leaks, mold, water leaks, pests, unsanitary medical facilities, structural problems with the building, lack of temperature control, overcrowding, and inadequate out-of-cell and exercise time for prisoners.
In September 2017, the prison’s main sewage pipe collapsed, flooding the basement level of the prison, where prisoners work and are housed and where the medical facility is located, with raw sewage, the lawsuit alleges.
To reduce the sewage outflow, guards were allowed to turn on the water for a few minutes twice per day, meaning that prisoners could flush the toilets in their cells only when the guards turned on the water, and went days, and even weeks, without showers, the complaint states.
Although a new sewage pipe has been installed, problems with toilets overflowing remain common in prisoners’ cells, the prisoners allege.
In addition to the environmental problems and general disrepair, the prison is frequently overcrowded and lacks space for classes, programming and religious services. Due to overcrowding, prisoners are routinely forced to sleep in cots — called “boats” — on the floor of the common areas adjacent to cells or in the prison chapel, causing religious services and other programming that occurs there to be canceled, according to the lawsuit.
There is no space for prisoners to meet privately with their criminal defense attorneys. Instead, they must confer in holding cells lining a narrow hallway where guards and other prisoners must pass to get to the basement.
When prisoners are admitted to the prison, they are issued a single sheet, blanket, towel and jumpsuit. If they are not wearing undergarments when they are admitted and cannot afford to purchase them from the commissary, they must go without, the lawsuit contends.
The prison relies on inmates to do much of the cleaning of the prison but does not provide them with adequate cleaning supplies. Female workers make only $4.50 per week, while male workers make $10.50 per week and are the only prisoners allowed contact visits, the lawsuit states.
“No one should be forced to live in these filthy conditions,” said Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. “Fayette County is failing its citizens, both guards and the incarcerated alike, by refusing to address these obvious and life-threatening issues.”