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Cruel and Unusual Punishment

In 1977, many inmates in the old Allegheny County Jail endured horrifying conditions

Sunday, August 30, 1998

By Jere Krakoff

It was Aug. 15, 1997. I stood on a pavement across from the main entrance of the old Allegheny County Jail, 20 years to the day a federal class-action trial convened in Pittsburgh to address allegations that conditions inside the jail were unconstitutional. As I studied the 19th-century relic, I realized how much things had changed, not only for the jail, but also for those of us who participated in the trial that profoundly changed its destiny.

Ted Crow, Post-Gazette Illustration

I was no longer the halting young legal services attorney who was handling his first complex case. My friend Michael Saltzburg, who assisted me at the six-week trial, had long since moved to Philadelphia to join his uncle's law firm. The jail itself was no longer a jail. It had been abandoned in 1995, when the last of its inmates were moved to a modern facility near the Monongahela River.

There were many other things that had changed:

John Arch, the assistant county solicitor who had defended all that was wrong with the jail, had gone into private practice; Maurice B. Cohill Jr., a new judge on the federal bench when the trial convened, had turned 65 and assumed "senior status," a form of partial retirement available to federal judges; the late James Jennings, then the jail's beleaguered warden, had resigned his position and receded from public view; and Calvin Milligan - one of the inmate representatives named in the suit and the only one who attended the trial as a surrogate of the 400 other inmates - had been released from jail soon after the trial ended.

As the images and impressions of the Allegheny County Jail trial rushed through my mind that day from the distance of 20 years, I couldn't even recall what Milligan or most of my other clients looked like. It was both frustrating and sad. And it was the moment I knew I had to write down all that had happened during that life-altering time.

Whatever else I have forgotten, my visit to the jail's Square Room on the eve of the trial is still seared into my memory.

I recall walking to the basement of the decaying institution in July 1977 with a psychiatrist, a jail administrator and a contingent of guards. The psychiatrist, Frank Rundle, an expert witness I had retained to testify about the neglect of the jail's mentally ill prisoners, had insisted upon seeing the Square Room at the outset of his inspection. In lockstep, the guards led us into a small, dimly lit ward of the jail's infirmary. The stench of stale body odor greeted us as we neared the men who were officially referred to as "patients."

"There they are," said the guard who oversaw the ward. "I wouldn't get too close. Some of them like to spit."

He pointed toward seven naked inmates who were strapped down to the cots like a row of human crucifixes. The men's arms extended out at right angles from rigid torsos, fastened to the sides of the cots by leather manacles. Their legs were bound tightly together at the ankles. Their buttocks sagged through large circular openings cut from the coarse canvas material. Metal buckets rested on the floor immediately below the openings to assure the efficient collection of waste. Six of the men were sleeping. The seventh, who was elderly, was babbling about spiders and other insects.

    About the author

Jere Krakoff's first case, in which he gained injunctions to correct deplorable conditions at the old Allegheny County Jail, set the course for his career:

Krakoff, 54, a Squirrel Hill native who graduated from the University of Pittsburgh's Law School, went on to represent State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh inmates in a suit that brought reforms to the North Side facility. Later, in a class-action suit filed in 1994, he was the lead attorney for 25 inmates who said they were beaten by Allegheny County Jail guards. The suit was settled this month.

In a June 16 article in the Post-Gazette, Krakoff said the jail is "light years" ahead of the way it previously handled complaints of abuse.

Krakoff says writing about his experiences "was something I just had to do."


The psychiatrist moved from cot to cot, stoically taking notes. The guard who oversaw the room had virtually attached himself to the psychiatrist's side. At every opportunity, he assured the expert that a staff of dedicated inmate workers attended to the needs of the unfortunate men under their care. The administrator dabbed the crown of his balding head with a handkerchief, collecting beads of sweat in the heat of the stuffy, windowless room. And I - utterly bewildered - finally saw what I had learned second-hand during months of investigation leading to trial.

We were in the back channels of the institution, in the place where "nut cases," as the overseer put it, were strapped down until somebody in the chain of command decided either to liberate them or arranged to have them prisoners dispatched to a state mental hospital. It was a squalid room that few inmates and even fewer guards ever entered, a ward rooted in the practices of the previous century, when the jail was built.

Prior to that day, I had only known the Square Room and its inhabitants from the records that had been turned over in the course of pretrial discovery and from the matter-of-fact testimony of jail personnel questioned at depositions. I had reviewed hundreds of incident reports from guards documenting the kinds of remarkable and not so remarkable behavior that had triggered an inmate's restraint: things like cutting a wrist, ingesting a cockroach, screaming incoherently at night and even cursing at a nurse. I had learned from the meticulous time records that many prisoners had been held in restraints around the clock for as long as four weeks at a stretch.

But nothing I had read or heard had prepared me for the degradation I witnessed as I looked down at seven naked men in July 1977, only days from the beginning of the trial that I had been dreading.

The genesis of Inmates of the Allegheny County Jail vs. Pierce, Civil Action 76-743, was a letter received in February 1976 in the central office of Neighborhood Legal Services Association, a federally funded poverty law program that was then located in an office building directly across the street from the jail.

The letter - stuffed inside an envelope marked "urgent" and addressed in bold letters to the program's "prison law specialist" - had been sent to a nonexistent person. There was no such attorney on the NLS staff. That being the case, the letter was routed to the program's mental-health attorney, a woman designated to review mail that was occasionally received from inmates and to diplomatically inform them that the program would not be able to assist them.

Attorney Jere Krakoff stands at the entrance of the old Allegheny County Jail where he spent much of his career fighting for inmate's rights. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

The mental-health attorney and I shared a small office. The letter had been lying conspicuously on her desk for several days. I don't recall now why, but I picked up the letter and began to read it.

The author of the letter, Kenneth Owens-El, was an inmate who was in solitary confinement at State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh, where he had been transferred from the Allegheny County Jail. Owens-El launched into a description of conditions at the 19th-century "hellhole." He described cellblocks overrun by mice, rats and cockroaches; housing areas so cold in the winter that inmates had to wear coats even while sleeping and so oppressively hot in the summer that prisoners stripped down to underpants and broke out windows in search of moving air; corridors of unlockable cells, often without lights or functioning toilets; living quarters where sometimes the only running water was from leaking ceilings; beds without sheets, stained with the blood and body oils of a generation of sickly users; walls and floors encrusted with accumulations of filth; a human warehouse where mentally ill prisoners went untreated and unprotected; and a dark, pungent, antiquated setting where basic supplies like blankets and clothing either had to be purchased by barter from other inmates or stolen from weaker prisoners.

"All of this is true," Owens-El assured the nonexistent prison law specialist.

Owens-El needed an attorney. A civil-rights complaint he had drafted and filed a year earlier against Allegheny County Jail officials was languishing in the federal courthouse, "going nowhere." He was convinced that unless an attorney took the case over and "raised hell" with the court, it would continue to be ignored. And he extended an open invitation to meet with him, promising that "you won't be wasting your time."

At that point, I had a lot of time to waste. I was laboring in obscurity as the program's unemployment compensation lawyer, a position I had been conscripted to take a few months earlier when my predecessor resigned. I had rarely appeared in a court of any kind and usually functioned more as a social worker than as an attorney.

After moving to the program's Downtown office to take the unemployment compensation position, my lawyering experiences hadn't significantly changed. They were still threadbare, uninspiring and increasingly dull. I had vague thoughts of leaving the program when I read the letter addressed to the "prison law specialist."

The detail and the magnitude of the problems alleged in the letter made it difficult to dismiss. However, I was largely skeptical. The depiction of a Dickensian monstrosity didn't square with the fact that nothing Owens-El had described had been expressed in the local press or publicly discussed, as far as I knew. This was not an institution stuck miles from civilization in some remote, backwater countryside setting. The jail was 20 feet from the courthouse, literally attached to it by a foot bridge. It was a place where inmates left every day to appear before judges and where prisoners were visited by scores of public defenders and private attorneys. Surely, the general contours of the allegations - if not the details - would have emerged. Still, I was curious enough to want to visit Owens-El. And with my colleague's blessing, I did.

A few days after reading the letter, I was seated across a table from Owens-El, taking notes. He calmly detailed conditions in the jail for an hour or more, never pausing to ask a question and rarely giving me an opportunity to seek clarification. Then he abruptly stopped and asked, "What do you think?"

I was still skeptical and told him that unless I received corroboration from several other prisoners, I would not even consider taking the case. I also explained that even with corroboration, it was unlikely that I could do anything. He seemed disappointed, but promised to send me the names of at least 10 current prisoners who could confirm the abysmal conditions. I politely nodded, never expecting to hear from Owens-El again.

A week after the interview, I received his list of inmates. However, there were only three names on the list, not the 10 he had agreed to provide. It wasn't a promising beginning.

That morning, I entered the jail for the first time. After registering as a legal visitor, I was taken to the attorney's visiting room to await the arrival of the prisoners. One by one, the inmates on the list appeared in the attorney's visiting room and answered my questions. Their accounts not only confirmed what Owens-El had described, they added detail and texture to his description and revealed abuses he had not mentioned at all.

One of the men told me about the "hose squad," a group of guards who trained power hoses on "crazy" inmates who refused to shower and smelled accordingly. Water was shot through the cell bars while the offensive inmates were clothed. Many of those prisoners, he said, slept on cell floors and talked to themselves all night. His brother had been one of them.

He also related how he had too much pride to purchase a blanket from an inmate who was operating a black market. He had slept much of the winter in a coat and wool cap until an acquaintance - when released from jail - bequeathed his blanket to him. A blanket, however, hadn't resolved all of his sleeping problems. Like all other Allegheny County prisoners, he had no bedsheet. And like some, he used the pages from a newspaper to cover the filth that his predecessors had deposited on the bed.

Another inmate spoke of an isolation room where inmates who disrupted the cellblocks were taken for "behavior modification." The room had no windows or lights and was "as black as a coal pit." There was no bed or water inside the room. Under the jail's policy, inmates were stripped of their clothing and either had to stand or lie naked on the concrete floor. Twenty-four hours later, they would be removed to a segregation unit for more traditional forms of punishment.

The third inmate described how, when admitted, he was taken to a cellblock by an inmate "runner" to locate a cell. It was customary, he said, for an inmate worker rather than a guard to assign a new prisoner to a cell and to give him a "better cell" if the new prisoner agreed to repay the favor with cigarettes or other valuables. Grudgingly, he had given a runner two packs of cigarettes for a cell with running sink water, a functioning 40-watt light bulb on the ceiling and a cot that wasn't as stained as the others he had seen. The first cells he had been shown had no running water and only electric wires dangling from an empty light socket. "It was worth two packs," he said, "not to have to sleep in them dumps." The three men I interviewed that day gave me the names of other inmates, and those prisoners, in turn, referred me to others. Over the next four months, the interviews grew from three to more than 50. It became increasingly clear that Owens-El's plea for help had merit.

In April 1976, I asked the executive director of NLS for permission to file suit. After a lengthy meeting with him - during which I essentially had to plead the case - he authorized me to proceed. I emerged from the meeting with mixed feelings. On one hand, I was enthusiastic about the prospect of assembling and prosecuting a case that had real substance; on the other, I wondered whether I had taken on too much. I knew virtually nothing about constitutional law, the rights of inmates, the workings of federal court or how to try a complex case.

In the sarcastic words of a colleague, I was still "somewhat shallow."

That spring, after immersing myself in the law governing prisoner civil rights cases and constitutional law in general, I began to compose a class-action complaint on behalf of five named plaintiffs and all other prisoners of the Allegheny County Jail. After dozens of clumsy drafts, I finally settled on a final version which, though too long and lacking in eloquence, adequately summarized the conditions that were undermining my client's rights. The complaint requested a series of injunctions to remedy the constitutional violations. No money damages were sought.

On June 4, 1976, I walked into the federal courthouse in Pittsburgh, handed a clerk the standard $50 filing fee and deposited the complaint in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. The lawsuit was official.

News of the lawsuit had all of the resonance of a tree falling in a distant forest. The morning after the complaint was filed, the Post-Gazette, in a 3-inch story, reported few details about the challenged conditions. A similar story ran in the Pittsburgh Press. After that, there was nothing else in the newspapers about the case until the day before the trial began.

I was navigating in uncharted waters. Nobody at NLS was able to help me assemble the case. And I knew of no attorneys in the Pittsburgh area who had experience litigating a prison-conditions lawsuit. Fortunately, I learned of a New York lawyer who had recently won a major lawsuit against a jail known as the Tombs. He was kind enough to spend a day with me, walking me through the development of a case and establishing a general blueprint I could follow.

With his advice scribbled in a notebook I came to call my "Bible," I began to assemble the lawsuit. My first step was to submit a formal request to the jail administration asking it to turn over for inspection virtually every document generated at the jail over the previous five years. Through the request, I hoped to obtain written proof of the deplorable conditions. I also requested permission to photograph the cellblocks where the 400-plus prisoners were housed. I wanted to capture images of the physical conditions before they were erased.

After initial resistance to both requests, the County finally capitulated when I threatened to obtain court orders requiring the jail to cooperate. I was impressed with the power of the "threat" and used it often as the case proceeded.

In the late summer of 1976, I came to the jail with a photographer. We were met by the warden, James Jennings, at the entrance to the main cellblock, where most of the male prisoners were housed. Flanked by several guards, the warden sternly warned me - at the threat of immediate expulsion - not to speak with any prisoners. With that point made, a metal door swung open, admitting us to the interior of the institution and the cellblocks.

From the perspective of the doorway, the cellblocks were surprisingly dark. The only meaningful illumination came from patches of light filtering through rows of large cathedral windows on the far outer walls. The photographer and I crossed a large circular area known as the Rotunda, past a guard station to one of the cellblocks. The warden and an entourage of guards led the way. The din of inmate voices increased in intensity as we neared the cellblock entrances. I saw inmates standing at cell doors. Some were waving and calling out to us. My heart quickened as the entrance gate to the largest cellblock clanged behind us.

"Remember," the warden sternly warned as he turned and left us in the care of his subordinates. "You'll be thrown out if my men see you talking to anyone. And no pictures of inmates. They have their right to privacy, you know." I couldn't determine whether he was being sarcastic or merely dense. So I said nothing in reply.

The day was spent photographing evidence of the filth and of decay that were alleged in the complaint: Deep streams of water beneath leaking pipes; exposed wires dangling dangerously from cell ceilings; broken windows; blackened, corroded toilets; cells without beds and beds covered with extraordinary stains; newspapers woven through the base of cell bars; and the remnants of food and other litter everywhere.

The photographs would refute anticipated denials by the County at trial that the physical conditions alleged in the complaint did not exist when suit was filed. I felt a surge of confidence as I thanked the warden for his cooperation and returned to my office that night to celebrate. I knew that regardless of any cosmetic changes made between then and the time of trial, the judge would at least see what the jail looked like when the case began.

After weeks of heated negotiations, the documents I had requested were finally provided. By late summer of 1976, I began examining jail records. Many of the documents were stored in dozens of unmarked boxes in the jail's attic - a small room that was hotter and filthier than anything I had seen on the tour. Other records were collected in filing cabinets throughout the institution. For the next year, I spent virtually all of my working hours isolated in the jail, sorting through rafts of paper in a sometimes exhausting, always tedious search for evidence. What little social life I had was undermined by this pursuit. I would bore dates with endless discussions of the case, and I can recall at least once when I fell asleep at a movie. I was obsessed.

But my obsession had a payoff: My search yielded remarkable items of proof - as well as derision from colleagues who couldn't understand how I could work on only one case.

The boxes stored in the attic contained years of incident reports from guards complaining of, among other things, rodents "the size of cats" overrunning the cellblocks; alerting block sergeants that inmates were having to sleep on cement cell floors because no beds were available; and apprising the deputy warden that the cellblocks were becoming unbearably cold because wind was continuing to blow through broken windows.

Because the lawsuit was certified by the court as a "class action" on behalf of all inmates, I was permitted to review the medical records as well as incident reports and log books of inmates who had been in physical restraints. That project took more than two months to complete. When it was over, I had proof that inmates - often for little or no legitimate reason - were strapped onto restraint cots for days and weeks at a time and rarely received any meaningful treatment for mental disorders. On days that I was not examining records, I was questioning jail officials and guards under oath at pretrial depositions about jail conditions and practices. As my New York adviser had predicted, weeks of depositions produced little helpful information. It was a frustrating experience but good preparation for the trial. I was learning how to frame a coherent question.

The final stage of the development of the case for trial involved the use of expert witnesses. My adviser had cautioned that without experts to synthesize the facts and present well-shaped opinions, no amount of photographs, records, inmate testimony or eloquent arguments would persuade the judge that conditions in the jail crossed the constitutional line. With that advice in mind, I assembled a team of corrections, medical and environmental experts from outside of Pittsburgh to inspect the jail. They ultimately reported to me what my clients already knew: that conditions and practices in the jail were deplorable.

As time for trial approached, I sat in my office - behind piles of jail documents, photographs, deposition transcripts, inmate affidavits, expert reports and handwritten notes - wondering how to put it all together.

It was the first day of trial. My colleague, Michael Saltzburg, and I were walking the final paces to the courtroom. I cradled half of the exhibit boxes in my arms. Saltzburg, trailing several paces behind, balanced the other boxes on his shoulder. As we shuffled down a marble hallway toward Judge Cohill's courtroom, my heart raced; not so much from the exertion of carrying the paper exhibits but out of escalating fear.

We were 20 steps from the large mahogany doors leading to Courtroom Five of the U.S. Courthouse. We had been virtually sleepless over the previous three days while analyzing, debating, reading, writing, arguing and eventually panicking in a final effort to formulate a trial plan. Saltzburg had agreed only two weeks before to assist me at trial, and I felt sorry for him. He had not fully appreciated what he had gotten himself into, nor had he been told how much remained to be done.

Ridiculed by others at NLS as the "blind leading the blinder," Saltzburg and I arrived at the door, smiled meekly at each other, and entered. I had expected to see an empty courtroom. I was mistaken.

Virtually every seat in the enormous room was occupied. Scattered among the dozens of strange faces in the spectators' gallery were members of the media and artists with sketch pads and acrylic chalk in hand to render pictures for the evening news.

"Let's get out of here," I whispered. "It's not too late." Saltzburg just rolled his eyes.

Actually, it was too late. Judge Cohill's clerk immediately summoned us to the judge's chambers where the day's events were choreographed. After opening statements by counsel, there would be a tour of the jail. Then the testimony would begin. The judge wished us well and rose to don his robe.

Moments later, I was standing behind a podium in the well of the courtroom looking up to the judge. With a halting delivery, riddled with frequent stammers and unintended pauses, I outlined the case. I promised to bring before the court a legion of witnesses, rafts of incriminating exhibits and irrefutable evidence that conditions and practices in the Allegheny County Jail on an unrelenting, daily basis fell below contemporary standards of decency and crossed the constitutional line. After speaking for 20 minutes, I thanked the court for its patience and returned to counsel table, where Saltzburg and Calvin Milligan sat expressionless.

My adversary, John Arch - an attorney from the County Solicitor's Office - ridiculed the inmates' allegations, characterizing them as either grossly exaggerated or totally untrue. He promised to show that conditions in the jail comported with the Constitution and that jail administrators coped well in an admittedly difficult situation, given the advanced age of the institution and the presence of inmates who were hell-bent on destroying it.

He spoke with confidence and a fervor that were missing in my presentation. It wasn't a good beginning. The trial then adjourned as the judge, members of his staff, the attorneys and a court reporter walked down Grant Street, onto Ross Street and into the jail for the tour. Over the next three hours, Judge Cohill and the entourage walked through the cellblocks and listened to the unsworn, spontaneous testimony of inmates who were randomly encountered in their cells. Fortunately, the testimony confirmed much of what our prepared inmate witnesses would later relate in court under oath. Saltzburg and I were pleased as well as relieved.

We also were astonished by the fact that little had been done to rectify the physical problems in the jail. The institution was in virtually the same squalid shape it had been in when photographs were taken a year earlier.

When the tour ended, the judge and his staff ate lunch at the jail. For tactical reasons - associated with allegations that the cafeteria was inundated with rodents - Saltzburg and I politely declined the invitation to eat. We used the time for additional preparation.

Later that afternoon, the trial began in earnest. It would continue for six weeks - longer than anybody had anticipated - as more than 50 lay and expert witnesses testified and thousands of pages of exhibits were introduced. Saltzburg and I would become weary to the bone and barely able to frame a coherent question by the fifth week. But somehow we managed, and the accumulation of testimony by trial's end became irrefutable.

To establish the evidentiary framework, our expert witnesses were called at the threshold of the trial. Details would be filled in by a succession of inmates and guards.

Frank Rundle, a psychiatrist who had worked in and evaluated other prisons across the United States, testified that despite the presence of an extraordinary number of seriously mentally ill inmates in the Allegheny County Jail, there was no system either to identify the inmates as they were admitted or to treat them after they were confined. The common way the prisoners were "treated," he testified, was to shackle the men in the "medieval" restraint cots; an apparatus he had never seen before and one that he condemned as barbaric, dangerous and a poor substitute for treatment. His review of records also reflected that those inmates who were medicated often received either too little or too much medicine. He described both as "dangerous" practices. According to Rundle, the jail was one of the worst examples of the treatment of the mentally ill he had ever seen.

George Camp, a former deputy commissioner of the New York City Department of Corrections, characterized the unsanitary conditions as "intolerable" and described his visit to the physical-restraint room as "one of the most horrendous and barbaric scenes I've ever seen in any correctional institution." He also condemned the absence of basic clothing, bedding and other supplies as symptomatic of an institution where "nobody is really being held accountable."

Ted Gordon, an environmental expert from Washington, D.C., described the jail as an "environmental nightmare."

Inmates and guards subpoenaed to testify on behalf of the plaintiffs confirmed in even more graphic detail what life in the jail was like. As with the experts, nothing asked on cross-examination by Arch or introduced through the defendants' own witnesses could dispel the notion that the Allegheny County Jail was a grossly unconstitutional place to confine prisoners.

When the trial ended, a weary Judge Cohill thanked the exhausted attorneys and promised a prompt decision.

On Jan. 4, 1978, Saltzburg and I received word from Judge Cohill's chambers that a decision had been handed down and that a copy of the opinion was available. We quickly walked to the courthouse to retrieve a copy and read it together while perched on a windowsill down the hall from the judge's courtroom.

We were elated. The decision found in favor of the inmates on virtually every issue that had been tried. Judge Cohill, in condemning the "unhealthy and unsanitary conditions of the jail," concluded that they violated the Eighth and 14th Amendments to the Constitution and justified the issuance of mandatory injunctions to remedy the violations.

Saltzburg and I returned to our office to celebrate with colleagues who had never understood how I could have spent an entire year working on only one case. Now, they appeared to understand.

The evening after the ruling, in sharp contrast to the coverage of the filing of the lawsuit a year and a half earlier, the decision was reported extensively in the press. In lengthy first-page articles, the Pittsburgh Press and Post-Gazette detailed the substance of the opinion and initial injunctions issued by the court. Editorials praising the judge soon followed.

In a series of injunctions that followed the decision, Judge Cohill ordered the County to establish a mental-health unit to assess and treat mentally ill prisoners and to address the conditions illuminated at trial.

I would work on the Allegheny County Jail case for the next five years, monitoring compliance with the injunctions and, on occasion, seeking to have the County held in contempt for failing to follow the injunctions. In 1982, I moved to Jackson, Miss., to join the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a public interest firm that specialized in voting rights and other kinds of litigation on behalf of black Mississippians. I eventually worked for the National Prison Project in Washington, D.C., and returned to Pittsburgh in 1988.

The old Allegheny County Jail remained under court order until shortly after it was closed in 1995. Over the years of court supervision, the County's checkered compliance with injunctions, severe overcrowding and the advanced age of the building always rendered the jail a harsh place to live.

But not inhumane or cruel.

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