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Warden Responds To Criticism Over Allegheny County Jail's Use Of Force Training, Weapons Contracts

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Following legal threats and mounting pushback on social media, the Allegheny County Jail's top official is defending recent steps to provide new use of force training and weapons to corrections officers at the facility.

At issue are deals made with two contractors: Corrections Special Application Unit (C-SAU) for use of force training and Lightfield Less Lethal Research for a supply of flashbangs, rubber slugs and other projectiles.

On Wednesday, Warden Orlando Harper argued the weapons could help corrections officers maintain control of situations where an incarcerated person becomes violent.

“Our correctional staff are already working in extraordinary circumstances, but a lack of tools and resources will put their safety and well-being in jeopardy,” Harper said in a statement, lamenting the ban on use of the restraint chair.

“The restraint chair was an important tool that was used to prevent individuals from self-harm or to restrain volatile inmates,” he said.

C-SAU has been criticized for implementing training tactics that put an emphasis on use of force. Several oversight board members called out the contractors at their August meeting.

“Your plan is to use shotguns and bean bag projectiles to de-escalate? You’re de-escalating with weapons?” Allegheny County councilperson-at-large Bethany Hallam asked.

Harper dismissed those concerns on Wednesday.

“The facility is not using pepper spray, bean bag projectiles, or dogs to name just a few. The training being provided is very specific to the needs of the Allegheny County Jail,” he said. The county did not further describe those needs.

The no-bid contracts total $442,700 and were approved by the jail last month. Harper said at the August oversight board meeting that the contracts will help the jail maintain control without the use of a "restraint chair" or solitary confinement.

A referendum passed by voters in the spring largely banned solitary confinement, as well as the use of restraint chairs and leg shackles.

The Abolitionist Law Center has threatened legal action against the county and Lightfield if injuries result from the so-called less lethal weapons. The firm is calling on the county to cancel the contracts.

Harper said the training will help to address mental health crises within the jail.

“As the warden of this jail, it is my responsibility to administer policies, programs and personnel operations, but the job is much more complex than that. Ultimately, the safety and health of inmates and staff falls to me,” said Harper.

Use of force

Harper also refuted concerns Wednesday that the training will increase use of force against the incarcerated. He said the jail uses a tiered response system that first relies on supervisory staff, then medical and mental health staff before a C-SAU team is called in.

“If, and only if, all other de-escalation options have failed, the jail’s C-SAU trained team will have the ability to use force to remove an inmate from a location or move them to another location as is currently the case in our jail and at corrections facilities across the country,” the statement reads.

“It remains our hope and goal to never utilize force against anyone in the jail,” said Harper. “Unfortunately, experience tells us that is simply not the reality within a correctional facility.”

But cell extractions, when corrections officers forcibly remove the incarcerated from their cell, aren’t the only instance when force is used at the Allegheny County Jail.

Data from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections shows Allegheny County Jail outpaced all other county lockups in total use of force incidents last year. In 2020, the jail reported 585 use of force incidents. In 2019, the facility reported 720.

Jaclyn Kurin, a staff attorney with The Abolitionist Law Center, said Harper’s statements Wednesday have moved the firm to investigate the jail’s contract with C-SAU even further.

She expressed particular concern with C-SAU's "senior team leader" Joseph Garcia's focus on use of force.

"Assessments by correctional experts, multiple lawsuits against Gracia’s training practices, and Garcia’s own statements reveal that he teaches officers to use excessive force on individuals with psychiatric disabilities and not de-escalation skills, which is the correctional standard" she said.

The York Daily Recordhas reported on accusations of humiliation and physical threats against inmates in an incident with the contractor.

“Why has Harper, who has run a jail with the worst use of force record of all 67 jails in the state of Pennsylvania and that is subject to several lawsuits for excessive force, enlisted Garcia to train his officers at the ACJ, when there [are] 'real' corrections experts, who are more qualified at implementing correctional reforms like those passed in the referendum?” she asked.

“Based on Harper and Allegheny County’s admissions about Garcia’s background and his excessive force trainings, ALC is now investigating claims against the County for conspiracy to violate the civil rights of incarcerated people at ACJ.”

Contractor’s history

The C-SAU training, which Harper said is already underway, has drawn sharp criticism from other communities where the training has been used. The York Daily Record reported earlier this week that Garcia has served jail time in a British prison during his time in the U.S. Air Force.

Garcia, YDR reports, was convicted on charges of conspiracy to commit bodily harm in 1989.

But Harper said C-SAU and Garcia were thoroughly vetted.

"These reviews include National Crime Information Center (NCIC) checks,” the statement reads. “In addition to the county jail, Mr. Garcia has also been vetted and granted access to provide training at 66 other facilities, including 52 law enforcement agencies and 14 departments of correction, across 35 states. He has also been vetted, granted access, and provided training in seven other countries, including in England.”

Harper's statements come the day before the jail’s oversight board holds its monthly meeting. Jail administrators are scheduled to present their plans to implement new policies that adhere to the referendum Thursday.

The jail must be in compliance with the referendum by December.

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.