The Allegheny County Jail appears to be in disarray, as evidenced by a wave of jail deaths, acute staff shortages, questions about the county’s compliance with a rule on solitary confinement, and a call for Warden Orlando Harper’s resignation from the employees’ union. Given the flood of charges and rebuttals, as well as the ongoing feud between jail managers and reform supporters, we use the word “appears” since it’s difficult to determine exactly what’s going on at this point.
As a result of disagreements between jail managers and some members of the Jail Oversight Board, it has become practically impossible to detect and address problems in the jail system. Without outside assistance, the county confronts a likely lawsuit, an increase in inmate deaths and charges of abuse, decreasing employee morale, continued personnel shortages, and nagging doubts about the jail’s compliance with the vote.
According to County Councilwoman Bethany Hallam, a member of the Jail Oversight Board, “He (Harper) is breaking the law,” according to the editorial page editor of the Post-Gazette.
County Jail Warden Harper’s resignation demanded
Given what the public is aware of, however, it is premature to demand for Mr. Harper’s resignation at this time. The warden, who was appointed in 2012, has implemented model education and re-entry programs to reduce recidivism and prepare offenders for better lives – critical measures that receive little public recognition despite their importance.
Even still, Mr. Harper is powerless to tackle the jail’s problems on his own, especially when he refuses to acknowledge the existence of some of them. I believe it is past time for independent oversight, perhaps in the form of a jail compliance officer who reports directly to County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald should at the very least appoint a consulting team to conduct an audit of the jail’s operations and provide recommendations for improvements.
a failing to communicate effectively
Solitary confinement, which is frequently used as a harmful replacement for mental health treatment, is considered torture by human rights organizations. Its abolition, with the exception of emergency emergencies and jail lockdowns, is a just cause imposed by a vote in May 2021 that also prohibited chemical agents, restraint chairs, and leg shackles, among other things.
The jail, according to Mr. Harper, complies with the referendum; nevertheless, he has recognized that the institution should do a better job of giving precise data on compliance. For example, nearly 300 occurrences of solitary confinement were reported in January, despite the fact that the vast majority of them were COVID-related quarantines or, according to Harper, convicts who decided not to leave their cells for the full four hours of required recreation time.
Communication, on the other hand, is always a two-way path. From the beginning, reform supporters did little to encourage the support of jail managers for their ideas. During a visit of the county jail, a Post-Gazette journalist was informed by county authorities that referendum supporters had never consulted them about jail operations or logistics.
Alternatively, a jail compliance officer might assume responsibility for overseeing adherence to the referendum and preparing thorough monthly reports to be submitted to the Jail Oversight Board as required by law. Mr. Harper should be grateful for the support.
Staffing shortages are even more concerning, as evidenced by allegations that medical staff for jail intake has been absent on multiple shifts in recent weeks. A pre-trial detention in the county jail can quickly turn into a death sentence if thorough screening is not performed to identify convicts’ physical, medical, and psychological requirements. Unmedicated withdrawal from drugs or alcohol can be agonizing and lead to seizures, heart attacks, and even death if left untreated. Suicides can occur as a result of untreated mental health disorders. Corrections officials must receive appropriate training before they can deliver prescription drugs and psychotropic meds.
There are approximately 378 full-time corrections officers in the jail, which has more than 1,500 inmates, which is down significantly from pre-COVID levels. According to union president Brian Englert, the jail is short at least 50 officers. Jail administrators have taken steps to boost recruitment, including on-demand pre-employment testing and social media advertising, but more direct outreach to high school students and other potential employees is needed. The county should also consider increasing the beginning wage for prisons officers, which is currently $22 an hour.
There have been far too many deaths.
A total of ten Allegheny County inmates — all males with an average age of 46 — died between April 11, 2020, and October 9, 2021, an unusually high amount for a facility of this size. At least one of the deaths was a suicide. Since October, there have been at least three more deaths.
A large number of inmates arrive in prison in poor health. Despite this, many deaths may have been avoided, and some have resulted in expensive lawsuits.
A jail compliance officer would be able to appropriately report those deaths to the oversight board, as well as to state and federal agencies. There is a nationwide issue about the underreporting of deaths while in jail. Allegheny County should not be included in this group. The vast majority of jail inmates are either pre-trial detainees with no prior convictions or have been convicted of minor offenses.
Employees at the Allegheny County Jail who are committed to their jobs perform admirably, particularly in the areas of education and reentry. Despite this, the problems on the inside are becoming increasingly serious. They could become infected and eventually detonate if independent control is not instituted by Mr. Fitzgerald.