Lehigh County Jail vigil planned as activists say conditions inside are dire

Written by on February 5, 2021

 Lehigh County Jail vigil planned as activists say conditions inside are dire for inmates and staff

By Tyler Pratt

February 5, 2021

The Lehigh County Jail. Screenshot from Google Earth.

Updated 3 p.m.

Lehigh Valley officials have sent a letter to the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Department of Corrections asking for immediate COVID aid for the jail. 

State Reps Mike Schlossberg and Peter Schweyer along with Lehigh County Executive Phil Armstrong and Commissioner Geoff Brace requested vaccines for staff and inmates, additional COVID-19 testing and funding for architectural expansion, “to allow for appropriate social distancing measures.” 

Lehigh Valley community members say the situation inside the Lehigh County Jail is bleak. Activists say COVID-19 conditions are causing harm to inmates and employees. And they plan to make their voices heard this weekend.  

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The jail has been in lockdown for months. No visitors are allowed and movement is highly restricted.

Jessica Ortiz runs a community advocacy group: the Ortiz Ark Foundation. She said inmates write her letters about their daily lives.

“They can’t be in a cell 23 hours a day,” Ortiz said. “Then they’ll do things to get out of jail like throw feces outside the cell and to get attention.” 

Staff say they are beyond their breaking point, overwhelmed and overburdened. And following the recent COVID deaths of an inmate and a corrections officer, Attorney Ettore Angelo says an alliance has formed between the two groups. 

“They’re normally like cats and dogs, but now they have commonality of interests basically to stay alive,” Angelo said. 

Activists and some corrections officers are calling on the county to reduce the jail’s population. 

People plan to gather outside the jail Saturday evening to honor the officer and inmate who died and stand in solidarity with those inside. 

“We need to create awareness so we don’t have any more deaths like the two we lost already, That’s fear [number] one,” Ortiz said. “ Fear two is that the COs walk off their job and we have chaos.”

Saturday’s vigil will take place in two parts. One at 6 p.m. outside the jail and then a virtual one afterward. Lawyers, union leaders and elected officials are scheduled to speak. 

WLVR has reached out to the county corrections office for comment but did not receive a response in time for air. Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin has said releasing prisoners would compromise public safety.

In a public statement Friday Corrections Director Janine Donate said COVID vaccine distribution for jail staff had begun. Donate said the jail could begin vaccinating inmates once more vaccines are secured. 

“I have been in communication with our inmate healthcare provider to stay informed of the developments regarding vaccine availability for the inmate population.” Donate said. 

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