Altoona Prison. Flickr

The Heinz Endowments is moving into 2019 with a multi-pronged and multimillion dollar plan to attack one of Pittsburgh’s, and the nation’s, most pressing public issues: mass incarceration.

“There are few issues that negatively impact our communities to the same extent as mass incarceration,” says Carmen Anderson, director of equity and social justice at The Heinz Endowments.

Last week, the charitable foundation pledged to spend $10 million over the next three years supporting local programs and advocacy aimed at reducing the county’s prison population.

Speaking to NEXTpittsburgh, Anderson says the funding will support programs aimed at assisting adults and children caught in the criminal justice system, as well as advocacy for better public policy.

Local partner organizations already marked to receive grants include The Jail Collaborative, the University of Pittsburgh’s Center on Race and Social Problems and Amachi Pittsburgh.

Specific support will include $499,957 to the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh Foundation to provide mental health services to inmates in juvenile detention, identifying critical needs and giving children ongoing support as they move out of the system.

“Invest in them to get them on a trajectory to long-term success,” says Anderson.

On the policy side, The Endowments will also be providing $150,000 to the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania to support advocacy and perhaps court actions aimed at rolling back the exorbitant bail and legal fines that disproportionately keep low-income black citizens behind bars for minor offenses.

Anderson says funding and promoting outright advocacy for “systemic” changes to local laws is a relatively new strategy for the organization, but one that she and her team believe is necessary given the scope of the problem.

According to a 2016 study from the University of Pittsburgh Institute of Politics, the Allegheny County Jail houses 70 percent more inmates now than it did 20 years ago. Of that number, 81 percent are awaiting trial after failing to meet bail requirements.

At a local level, Anderson says far too many schools rely on “zero tolerance” discipline regimes that are much more likely to put young black students into the crosshairs of the criminal justice system.

“We all have a role to play,” says Anderson.

The sizable grants will build on work the organization has already been funding for the past year, much of which focuses on studying the school-to-prison pipeline in Allegheny County.

These efforts include a study released in August of this year looking at racial disparities in school suspensions, and a pilot program in Woodlands Hills High School where full-time intervention specialists work with students to solve interpersonal conflicts.

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.