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Food at Allegheny County Jail falls under scrutiny at latest oversight board meeting

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

During a recent meeting, the Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board voted against a motion meant to give the board more information about food served to incarcerated people. Supporters say the motion would have provided more transparency about the kind and quality of food served at the jail, which has been an ongoing issue.

If passed, the motion would have required jail administrators to notify the oversight board once a week when the food served to incarcerated people deviated from the posted menu. The notification would have been required to include “detailed reasoning for the menu deviation and what food was substituted.”

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“The jail posts a weekly menu for all of the meals that are going to be served every day. Very often—and I cannot say enough how often this is seeming to happen, especially lately,” said Allegheny County Councilor Bethany Hallam, who introduced the motion.

“Not only are they not getting what’s on the menu… but more recently [there have been] lots and lots of times that meals are not being provided but instead what they call ‘emergency boxes’ or just baloney sandwiches are being provided for who knows what reason.”

According to the Allegheny County Bureau of Corrections’food service procedures, the food service department is already required to retain an “accurate record” of the meals prepared and served to incarcerated people.

The board voted four to three against the motion at its meeting June 2.

Judge Elliot Howsie and Abass Kamara voted against the motion, as did Deputy County Manager Stephen Pilarski, who sat in for County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, and Chief Deputy of the County Sheriff’s Office John Kearney, who sat in for County Sheriff Kevin Kraus.

Howsie said the notification process might be an added burden to already busy jail administrators.

“I think it’s onerous,” he said. “We have an organization that’s responsible for staffing a facility, taking care of approximately 1,500 plus individuals on a daily basis. I think it’s too much to ask.”

Judge Beth Lazzara, Acting Controller Tracy Royston and Hallam voted for the motion. Gayle Moss and Terri Klein were absent.

Past issues with food at the county jail prompted Hallam to introduce the motion. She recounted when, on a recent surprise visit she saw incarcerated people being fed “ground-up bologna and uncooked-looking hashbrowns” instead of the meal posted on the menu for that day.

She said she believes bologna sandwiches are being served “almost every day right now” and said some of them had “mold on them.”

Speakers during the meeting’s public comment portion echoed Hallam’s concerns.

“I wouldn’t feed my dog that,” Kimberly Andrews told the oversight board. Andrews was previously incarcerated at Allegheny County Jail.

“Would any of you be satisfied with a little baggie of teddy grahams and a couple pieces of bologna dripping with applesauce for your dinner?” asked Jonas Caballero, a paralegal at the Abolitionist Law Center.

Caballero brought with him two large pictures of what he said was food at the jail.

“Would you guys seriously consider eating any of this stuff that is on in these photographs? Electric green jello slopped onto a tray with runny mashed potatoes and peanut butter?”

Jesse Geleynse, a spokesperson for the Allegheny County Jail, said “the jail contracts with Summit Foods and provides all incarcerated individuals with three meals per day that meet dietary and nutritional specifications. Summit employs a dietitian to ensure these needs are met. The jail is also subject to regular Health Department Food Safety inspections. When complaints are received, the ACJ has also contacted the Health Department to ask for additional inspections.”

The pandemic also changed how the jail’s kitchen operated, Allegheny County Jail Warden Orlando Harper said at the jail oversight board meeting.

“It’s really crippling how we’re doing things as far as workers working in the kitchen,” he said. “When we don’t have staff, incarcerated individuals to work in the kitchen we have to do something to feed the incarcerated individuals.”

“We do everything in our power to make sure that we feed the incarcerated individuals,” Harper said.

Towards the end of the meeting, Harper agreed to ask the jail’s Summit Food Service dietician to attend the next meeting.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Summit Food Service said, "Summit has served emergency meals in lieu of regular hot meals at times during the current COVID lockdown. This can be due to several factors, including supply chain issues and lack of kitchen workers. These substitutions are logged and reported to the jail administration."

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