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Allegheny County Jail staffing shortage could be hurting incarcerated people, community members worry

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Community members and Allegheny County Jail employees say the county jail is dealing with severe staffing issues. At a meeting of the jail’s oversight board Thursday night, some worried that the staffing shortages are hurting incarcerated people, especially those who need medical care.

The county’s Bureau of Correctionslisted at least 21 vacant health care-related positions and 42 vacant corrections positions as of June 2.

Brian Englert, a corrections officer at the jail and president of the Allegheny County Prison Employees Independent Union, told the oversight board that half of new cadets at the jail have quit over the last five months, and two other officers who were on probation were fired.

“We’re running dangerously short every day,” he said. We already ran intake with seven people. We’ve run intake multiple nights in a row with no medical [personnel] at all, whatsoever.”

To underscore his point, Englert wore a shirt that read “’adequately staffed.’”

“This is what the warden says to the media, ‘we’re adequately staffed.’ No, we’re not adequately staffed. Whether it’s officers or mental health, we’re not adequately staffed.”

Jesse Geleynse, a spokesperson for the Allegheny County Jail, said, “The jail is appropriately staffed. The safety and security of all those in the facility is always a primary concern. There is medical staff present in the facility at all times, and medical care is provided under the direction of AHN through a contract with the healthcare provider.”

He also noted that the jail has hired 44 officers since April 2021 and “currently has an 8- person cadet class currently performing on-the-job training that will graduate later this month.”

Speakers said the lack of personnel has resulted in delays in delivering medication. Some alleged that there were times when medication wasn’t delivered at all.

In the past, Allegheny County Jail warden Orlando Harper said jail staff has done its best to get medication to incarcerated people in a timely manner.

Later in the meeting, Allegheny County Councilor Bethany Hallam, who serves on the jail’s oversight board asked Harper if, over the last month, there was any “period of time without at least one medical staff person in intake?”

Harper declined to answer in a public setting, citing security and safety concerns. He said he would provide the board the answer in an executive session.

“The number one issue at Allegheny County Jail is a lack of medical care for people who enter the facility,” said Brandi Fisher, the president and CEO of the Alliance for Police Accountability..

Before the jail oversight board meeting, Fisher and others gathered outside of the City-County Building to remember Gerald Thomas and other people who died while incarcerated at the county jail.

Thomas died of natural causes in a hospital in March after collapsing at the Allegheny County Jail after Judge Anthony Mariani decided not to lift his probation detainer, even though the charges against Thomas were dropped.

Juana Saunders, Thomas's mother, filed a complaint against Mariani with the Judicial Conduct Board of Pennsylvania in May. She said Thomas asked for medical attention but did not receive it in a timely manner.

“No one should have to beg to see a doctor,” she told the oversight board. “No one should have to hope and pray that the nurse makes it to them before they pass away alone on a jail floor.”

Saunders also said she was not notified of her son’s medical emergency until hours after it happened.

“I ask the Jail Oversight Board and Warden Harper: are we running a jail or a cemetery?”

Geleynse said "lifesaving measures were performed" on Thomas until medical personnel arrived and paramedics took over compressions and transported Thomas to the hospital.

“The jail informed Thomas’ emergency contact, which is the process. Next of kin is a legal distinction and that notification is made by the Medical Examiner’s office, not the jail. Ms. Saunders was not listed as her son’s emergency contact,” Geleynse said.

According to thePittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, 13 people, including Thomas, died at the Allegheny County Jail between March 2020 and March 2022.

Geleynse disputed PINJ’s report. “Including Mr. Thomas, 10 individuals died inside that timeframe while in the custody of the Allegheny County Jail. Any additional deaths were individuals not in the custody the jail,” he said.

“All deaths are tragedies, and I don’t want anybody to think this administration don’t think otherwise,” Harper said later in the meeting. “But I’ve been reviewing statistics from the Bureau of Justice. And the Bureau of Justice has reported mortality at local jails has increased in recent years.”

Harper said that death rates at Allegheny County Jail are “significantly lower” than those at jails of the same size statewide and nationwide.

Nadia Narnor, a community organizer with the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration, asked Harper and the oversight board to change how incarcerated people’s families are contacted in the event of a medical emergency or death. She also asked that the jail allow people to update their emergency contact at any time when they are in the jail.

Currently, incarcerated people only share emergency contact information during the intake period.

“These are not isolated incidents,” Narnor said.

The Jail Oversight Board will meet again on July 7.

Updated: June 3, 2022 at 3:45 PM EDT
Updated to add comments from a jail spokesperson.
Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at