‘I thought I was going to die in there,’ Lehigh County inmate recalls time in jail during COVID-19 surge

Written by on March 1, 2021

‘I thought I was going to die in there,’ Lehigh County inmate recalls time in jail during COVID-19 surge

By Tyler Pratt

March 1, 2021

Allentown resident Jonathan Norberto was incarcerated for several weeks in the Lehigh County Jail during December’s COVID-19 surge. While the jail was locked down, Norberto said inmates were kept in their cells for more than 23 hours a day and sometimes not fed for long periods of time. “One month felt like a year to me. The longest month of my life because of the fear.” Photo | Tyler Pratt / WLVR

The latest report from the Lehigh County Department of Corrections states there are currently five COVID-19 cases among county jail staff and inmates. That’s a huge drop in numbers from a surge in December that left an inmate and corrections officer dead. 

Families of inmates and staff have been sounding the alarm for weeks about what they say are dangerous conditions in the jail, which remains locked down and cut off from the public. There are no visitors allowed.

Jonathan Norberto was incarcerated in the Lehigh County Jail for nearly a month during the surge. 

He was arrested in December for assault on a charge that was later dropped. It wasn’t his first time being behind bars, he has served years in various correctional institutions for other felonies. 

WLVR’s Tyler Pratt recently spoke with Norberto, who is now home, on a virtual call.  He says he tested positive for COVID as soon as he got to the jail. And housed with other inmates with the virus for weeks. And he says the conditions and isolation were dramatically worse than any of his previous experiences behind bars.

Listen to the story.

Jonathan Norberto

“I didn’t think I was going to come home. I thought I was going to die in there. One month felt like a year to me. And I’ve done four years straight. One month. It was the longest one month of my life because of the fear. Because of the COVID being locked down in your cell 23 hours a day. It was 23 and a half hours. You get to come out for 15 minutes for either a shower or a phone call, basically, and to make your food.”

Tyler Pratt 

“Were COVID positive inmates being kept away from inmates that didn’t have the virus? 

Norberto

“They moved me into a unit which was for people that were just coming in with COVID. When I got on to this unit they never cleaned out my cell. Nobody sprayed anything down. They didn’t give me anything to clean anything down. 

“Every single day they were doing moves. They were taking 10 people from 2D that were just mixed with COVID  population and bringing them to  3B. So you are taking people with COVID and moving them around  the jail with people that don’t have COVID. And you wonder why the outbreak is getting worse and worse?”

Protesters gather outside the Lehigh County Jail on a cold Saturday night, following the recent COVID-19 deaths of an inmate and correctional officer. The group shouted to those inside, “You are not alone.” For weeks, inmate’s loved ones have been sharing concern in public forums about dangerous conditions inside the jail. Photo | Tyler Pratt / WLVR

Pratt

“You mentioned the food earlier, what was that like during the COVID surge?”

Norberto

“We were getting raw beans every single day. Like if I took a can out of my cabinet, cracked it open, dumped it on a plate and gave you a bologna sandwich with those beans, you would not eat it. It wasn’t hot. It was cold. If you tried to bite the beans, you know they weren’t cooked because they were hard, like rubbery. You couldn’t even chew it. It’s mind-boggling. I can’t put it in words, but I’ve never seen an institution run like that, and I’ve been in a lot. I’ve been to six counties. I’ve been upstate. I’ve seen the worst of the worst.”

Pratt

“How would you reach the outside world during all of this? Talk to your family or a lawyer?” 

Norberto

“They make it nearly impossible. It used to just be the phone line. Like you just connect your credit card and your family could call you whenever you want. It used to be that they could come in and visit you. In the visits, you can have a contact visit, but through a glass. 

“Now, there’s none of that. Now with the COVID, there are three apps you have to download and each you have to pay for separately since you can’t get a visit from the jail now. They charge you for your visits over the tablet so communication is very scarce. If your family doesn’t have money and they’re struggling, you’re not getting your visit. You’re not getting your phone calls. You’re not getting your text messages. You’re not even using the tablet, which is going to cause frustration and anger. It’s going to lead to potential violence down the line because this person is gonna snap. They don’t have no support, no love.” 

Pratt

“Well, when we previously spoke, you mentioned frustration among the inmates during this time. What did you see and hear?” 

It’s crazy in there. It’s traumatizing.” Former Lehigh County Jail inmate Jonathan Norberto says inmates called out for help and begged to be fed during the COVID surge. He says cold food and restricted communication with family almost lead to a riot.

Norberto

“I was in my cell one day and it was over the tablets. We woke up at 7 a.m. and the CO that was on shift, he came up to everybody’s cell. He said, ‘Yo, nobody’s allowed to get tablets.’ 

So everybody started kicking their doors and getting mad and getting mad and getting mad. ‘No, no tablets you guys can’t take them.’ Our tablets are stopping, our communication. Once we got our trays and the food was cold, they were not having it. 

“There was like, ‘We’re going to throw our trays out. We’re having a food riot.’ We started turning up and people are kicking the doors. They were breaking the sprinklers.

“Out of nowhere, I get a letter, comes right into the cell. I’m in the top bunk of my bed and my cellmate, he reads the letter and he goes, ‘Yeah, start it up.’ He screams out the door, ‘Start it up!’

“The guy two cells over was going home in a week. And this kid sent the kite talking about, ‘Yo, I’m gonna grip the CO up. We’re gonna choke him out and if we kill him, we kill him. We’re going to take his keys and they’re gonna get us our food and our tablets.’

“I was like, ‘Wow, I’m a short-timer. I’m only here potentially for like, a week.’

“So all the sergeants came to the block. They were going to tear gas the block down there, like, ‘Everybody’s going to get gassed. You guys want to all move together? You guys all got to pay together.’

“So they were about to gas the block. And then Janine Donate sends a memo over and says that we’re allowed to have the tablets. So once they did that, the entire block calmed down. People were cleaning up the floodwater and it went back to normal running. It was so fast how everything changed. It went from, ‘We’re about to riot in the jail and attack COs,’ to ‘All right, we got our tablets and hot food. We’re done.’” 

At a vigil outside the Lehigh County Jail, people called for the county to resume visitations and let investigators in to report on conditions. Photo | Tyler Pratt / WLVR

Pratt

“Were there any other issues going on?” 

Norberto

“The place was disgusting. I can’t even put it in words to you. You wouldn’t believe me. It’s not believable. It looks crazy. It sounds crazy. It’s crazy in there.

“It’s traumatizing. I couldn’t react my first week out of jail. From the inmates rioting to the inmates screaming for help from the inmates, screaming for food. It was insane.

“It leaves a mental cut on you. You can’t heal. I can’t put a BandAid on that.”

At a vigil outside the Lehigh County Jail, people called for the county to resume visitations and let investigators in to report on conditions. Photo | Tyler Pratt / WLVR

Corrections Director Janine Donate declined an interview with WLVR. She has previously said  COVID-positive inmates were never housed with negative inmates. 

“There were challenges during the spike of the pandemic in December in maintaining inmate kitchen crews so there were a few times meals were served late,” Donate said.

She also said there were times communication was restricted due to broken tablets but the jail has since acquired more.

However, Donate disputed the incident Norberto described as a near riot. She said a short skirmish involving fewer than 10 inmates was quickly resolved. 

And in regards to cleanliness, Donate said, “Enhanced sanitation procedures were put in place a year ago due to the pandemic and have been continued.”

Lehigh County’s Board of Commissioners’ Courts and Corrections committee is planning a public meeting on March 3 about the jail.

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