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As deadline nears, officials and staff clash on jail's readiness to end solitary confinement

A referendum passed in spring 2021 limits solitary confinement at the Allegheny County Jail.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
A referendum passed in the spring that limits solitary confinement at the Allegheny County Jail takes effect Sunday.

Days before the Allegheny County Jail must extend the time inmates have outside their cells, corrections officers and jail administrators have voiced very different views over whether they are prepared to do so.

A referendum overwhelmingly passed by voters last spring will ban many uses of solitary confinement, and require at least four hours of daily recreation time for incarcerated individuals. Those requirements are set to take effect Sunday.

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit Allegheny County in March 2020, the jail has been on a "23-and-1" lockdown policy, with most prisoners spending just 1 hour outside their cell each day. During Thursday’s monthly meeting of the Jail Oversight Board, Warden Orlando Harper said the jail would be in compliance with the new schedule, but he did not disclose details about how the jail has been preparing to do so.

The referendum also put an end to the use of restraint chairs and leg shackles to immobilize prisoners, and to the use of chemical sprays to subdue them. Oversight board members have asked for updates on how the jail is meeting those requirements, but few details have been made public.

“Ever since the referendum was passed, we’ve been asking the jail to provide the board with information on how they’re specifically going to comply with this referendum,” board member and County Councilor Bethany Hallam told WESA. “And every month they refuse to give us any information on it.”

Board members asked again Thursday for information about how the jail was bringing the facility into compliance.

“The only thing I would like to say to the board is that we will be in compliance. [By] Sunday, we will be in compliance,” Harper said during the meeting.

But the board heard differing views over how informed jail staff were about the changes.

County Controller Chelsa Wagner read a comment submitted by Brian Englert, a corrections officer at the jail and president of the Allegheny County Prison Employees Independent Union.

In it, Englert said corrections officers would not be able to manage four hours of daily recreation at current staffing levels.

“As of today we have no idea how we’re going to ensure the four-hour rec requirements,” Englert wrote. “There has been no plan communicated to the officers on how we will meet the recreation requirements.”

“What Mr. Englert is saying is just totally untrue,” Harper responded.

Harper did acknowledge that he had only sent out a staff-wide email on the plan earlier that day. "But this administration has been communicating with our majors, captains and sergeants for this information to be disseminated to the officers.”

The board members did not discuss Englert’s claims during the meeting. But afterward, Wagner said the comments are cause for concern.

“We still basically have scant facts from the jail that would instill any confidence,” she told WESA.

Englert has previously told WESA between 10 and 15 officers were let go due to a COVID-19 vaccine requirement that took effect this week. Without them, he said, it will be hard to manage the incarcerated population.

“Officers cannot safely meet the rec requirements we were advised of today,” Englert said after the meeting. “[And] nothing has been communicated to my officers in writing.”

At previous oversight board meetings, jail officials provided progress reports on the vaccination of staff. But on Thursday, they declined to specify how many jail staffers have been terminated as a result of the vaccine requirement. In a statement earlier Thursday, the county said 94 percent of county workers had been vaccinated, but did not indicate how many employees had been terminated.

During the meeting, Hallam proposed inviting Englert to a future oversight board meeting to discuss the concerns further. Several oversight board members strongly objected to the idea.

“They have no role here,” Deputy County Manager Stephen Pilarski, who serves as the Allegheny County Executive’s proxy, interrupted.

Presiding Judge Kim Berkeley Clark and board member Gayle Moss agreed.

Hallam told WESA that without more information, she was not confident the jail would meet the referendum requirements. She said board members would rely on staff and the incarcerated population to file complaints if the referendum wasn’t being followed.

The board also voted Thursday to establish a liaison to monitor jail conditions. Hallam said she hoped that person could help the board determine whether the jail is in compliance.

“I really hope that I’m proven wrong on this,” Hallam said. “I hope the jail respects the will of the voters.”

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.