Lehigh County Jail vigil calls for action to keep inmates, employees safe

Written by on February 8, 2021

 Lehigh County Jail vigil calls for action to keep inmates, employees safe

By Tyler Pratt

February 8, 2021

Community members gathered at the Lehigh County Jail Feb. 6 for a vigil to remember an inmate and corrections officer who recently died from COVID-19 and to raise awareness of what they say are dangerous conditions inside. Photo | Tyler Pratt

Concerned residents held a vigil outside the Lehigh County Jail in Allentown over the weekend. Roughly 30 people gathered with signs and candles to remember an inmate and correctional officer who recently died from COVID-19 and to raise awareness of what they say are dangerous conditions inside. 

Listen to the story.

Jeanie Garcia led a crowd chanting, “We are here! You are not alone!” across the street from the jail in calling out to inmates Saturday evening.

She yelled out to a man in the jail she calls a very close family member. You could faintly hear him shout back from inside. She says he cried to her on the phone a few days before.

Photo| Tyler Pratt

“He says he feels unsafe there. Feels like he is going to die in there, he’s not going to get home, all for a technical probation violation,” Garcia says. “And I am not saying that these things don’t need to be addressed but what I am saying is right now with this pandemic in that jail it’s going to fester and it’s going to get a lot of people sick that do not deserve a death sentence.” 

The numbers fluctuate – but as many as a third of officers and inmates have tested positive for the virus in recent weeks.

Garcia and others said COVID court delays are keeping people in jail too long, The population has swelled to pre-pandemic numbers: more than 700 at last count.  And the jail is locked down, so family members can’t see the conditions inside. Garcia said they are frustrated with what they are hearing from courts and corrections officials. 

Photo| Tyler Pratt

“I don’t think we are getting answers, solid truthful answers and statements on how they are housing inmates in here,” Garcia says.

Local elected officials have asked the state corrections department for money to build more social distancing measures. But former inmate Jose Rivera questioned that.

“That makes no sense to continue to throw money on it,” Rivera says, “It’s simple, let the people out who don’t have these high crimes.”

The Lehigh County District Attorney says he’s considering a list of potential inmates for release, but his priority remains public safety. 

Allentown officials, including Mayor Ray O’Connell also attended Saturday evening. He said while the jail is downtown he said has no oversight authority. 

“It’s Lehigh County Jail,” O’Connell said. “Lehigh County is in charge of it. And that would be better directed to Phil Armstrong and the Lehigh County administration.” 

Photo| Tyler Pratt

O’Connell called for unity between the city and the county in addressing the issues at the jail. Allentown City Council members Ce-Ce Gerlach and Josh Siegel said Saturday they plan to draft a resolution about conditions inside.

Vigil attendees called on county commissioners to tour the facility and report back. Allentown Attorney Ettore Angelo is also asking the county commissioners to immediately convene a special executive session to address the issues at the jail.

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