by Autumn Redcross
April 14, 2020
Richard Lenhart was 49 years old when he died last weekend at the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ). Authorities deny that his death was related to COVID-19, nor that it appeared “suspicious,” though this information is impossible to assess, since the jail has not announced the cause of death. What is not questioned, however, is the fact that Lenhart died in custody. He was said to be unresponsive when called for dinner at the ACJ.
Lenhart was charged with burglary, trespassing, receiving stolen property, access device fraud, theft, and traffic violations on August 28th, 2019. Failing to post bail, he was forced to stay nearly a month until his bail was reduced to $0. Lenhart returned to the courts on March 4th and was sentenced to six-twelve months in jail, plus two years’ probation. He was ordered to pay $5,000 in fines and fees.
Lenhart had served almost two months, about four months away from probation. In proceedings lead by Judge Alexander Bickett, Lenhart had taken a plea deal that included a Justice Related Services plan and mental health evaluation. JRS seeks to provide an array of behavioral, mental and physical health services rather than incarceration resulting in over-population of both jails and prison. However, Lenhart didn’t make it that far.
ACJ officials do not believe Lenhart’s death to be “suspicious” nor related to the coronavirus. “The jail continues to follow the guidance of the Allegheny County Health Department as it relates to the safety of employees and inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic,” wrote Warden Orlando Harper. However, at last count, there were three positive COVID-19 cases among the inmate population of ACJ.
The Warden and County officials have failed to prioritize public health and safety by refusing to release enough people which could have radically altered conditions of confinement within the ACJ. This wholly underscores the relationship of this pandemic has with mass incarceration and deaths en masse. At this moment, one inevitably leads to another. These are not mutually exclusive. Moreover, the fact that this man died in custody, leaves no space for suspicion – he died in the hands of the ACJ.
Lenhart’s crimes amounted to a trip to Walmart in a car he stole from a mechanic’s servicing bay, the purchase of electronics with cash taken from a chamber of commerce office and the failed attempt to purchase both soda and lottery tickets with a stolen credit card. He did not make use of two Chuckie Cheese coins among the stash he had made off with before he was stopped and arrested by the police last summer.
On the day of his death, Lenhart was one among few inmates serving a sentence. The ACJ, jails people pre-trial, on probation detainers, parole violations, violations of court orders and detainers from other jurisdictions. In other words, a jail is designed to hold people until their matter can be brought before the court and is never a place for people to die.
Population count at the ACJ reflects a 26% decrease since the original declaration of judicial emergency in tandem with the state’s response to COVID-19. The remaining 1,753 people currently held at the Allegheny County Jail each have their own story and account of what happened to lead them there. Their stories intersect with that of a justice system that applies the punitive measure of revoking liberty as a means of social control and punishment – even to the point of death.
COVID-19 related or not, the loss of Richard Lenhart’s life represents the implicit, ongoing harm and ultimate violence designed by the justice system and the ACJ. No one should die in jail. Lenhart was the first to fall during this pandemic and he ought to be the last!