Allegheny County pays $120,000 to settle excessive force lawsuit with three former ACJ inmates

Allegheny County paid out the settlement on Oct. 13 to three women who claimed they were strapped to restraint chairs, burned with pepper spray and, in one case, physically beaten by a single jail staff member.

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Allegheny County Jail viewed from Tenth Street Bridge in downtown Pittsburgh. Photo by Tessa Williams via PGH Media Partnership.

Allegheny County paid $120,000 last month to settle a lawsuit with three women with psychiatric disabilities who alleged they were brutally assaulted by a staff member while held at the Allegheny County Jail, contracts show.

The women – April Walker, Alexus Diggs and LaVonna Dorsey — who were represented by the Abolitionist Law Center, the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project and K&L Gates, filed the suit against the ACJ in December 2020. The women alleged they were burned with pepper spray, strapped into restraint chairs and, in one case, physically assaulted by Sgt. John Raible. 

The county’s Law Department on Oct. 13 issued the six-figure settlement, which admitted no wrongdoing on the defendants’, including Raible’s, behalf, according to online contracts.

The suit also named Warden Orlando Harper, Chief Deputy David Zetwo and Deputy Chief of Operations Jason Beasom, who held those positions at the time of the settlement, for their failure to train and supervise staff at ACJ, which led to the assaults.

Jaclyn Kurin, a staff attorney at the Abolitionist Law Center, said the nonprofit cannot disclose information related to the settlement agreement. The contracts state the settlement payments represent the liquidation of all claims made in the lawsuit.

The settlement awarded $30,000 to Walker, a former inmate at the ACJ with asthma and psychiatric disabilities, including bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The suit claimed Raible assaulted Walker with pepper spray to the point of hospitalization and, roughly a year later, slammed her head into a concrete wall and helped put her in a restraint chair. 

The settlement also awarded $40,000 to Diggs, a former inmate with similar psychiatric disabilities as Walker. The suit alleged Raible locked Diggs in a metal “strip cage” and shot her with Oleoresin Capsicum [OC] pellets, which contain the same burning chemicals as pepper spray, before placing her in a restraint chair and letting the chemicals burn at her skin for hours.

Dorsey, another former inmate, was awarded $50,000. Like Diggs, the suit alleged Raible shot Dorsey with OC pellets and then restrained her. Dorsey also had asthma and similar psychiatric disabilities. 

The suit alleged that Harper, Zetwo and Beasom were aware of Raible’s violent history of assaulting incarcerated individuals for non-threatening conduct before he assaulted Walker, Diggs and Dorsey. 

“Sergeant Raible’s pattern of assaulting women in ACJ is as disturbing as it is illegal,” Kurin said in a release announcing the suit in December 2020. “This lawless brutality only exists because Harper, Zetwo and Beasom permit the systematic abuse of disabled individuals.”

Amie Downs, the director of communications for Allegheny County, declined to comment on whether Raible is still employed at the county jail. She also declined to comment on the use of force practices at the ACJ.

While the exact details of the settlement are undisclosed, the contracts state Walker, Dorsey and Diggs aren’t allowed to “disparage” Raible or the other defendants, but they can call for reform in the county and the ACJ. 

An investigation by NPR in January revealed one in three use-of-force incidents in Pennsylvania jails involved inmates who were having a mental health crisis or had known mental illnesses. 

When the Abolitionist Law Center filed the suit, they claimed there were 720 use-of-force incidents at the ACJ in 2019 — a 73% increase since 2015. But the county only reported 264 in 2022.

Since Walker, Dorsey and Diggs filed the suit, Allegheny County passed a referendum in May 2021 to ban all uses of solitary confinement — the first jurisdiction in the country to do so. The referendum prohibited the use of restraint chairs, chemical agents and leg shackles on any person in the custody of a detention facility.

“The plaintiffs’ litigation was instrumental in changing the narrative about ACJ and incarcerated people with mental health disabilities,” Kurin said in an email. “Their courageous advocacy helped lead to the passage of the Allegheny County Referendum, ensuring that no one at ACJ will ever have to be placed in the restraint chair or sprayed with chemical agents as they were.”

James Paul
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James Paul is a student at the University of Pittsburgh serving as one of two Pittsburgh Media Partnership interns this semester. He can be reached at jdp114@pitt.edu