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Allegheny County to hire contractor to investigate deaths at jail

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Kiley Koscinski
/
90.5 WESA News

Allegheny County will hire an outside contractor to investigate deaths that occur inside the county jail. County Executive Rich Fitzgerald announced on Monday that the National Commission on Correctional Health Care Resources will conduct a “historical review of fatalities” at the jail.

The move came after what county officials described as “several weeks of research into best practices” and just one day after a 78-year-old man being held on a probation violation died at the jail after spending 10 days in the hospital.

Since April 2020, 16 people incarcerated at the jail have died, including the man who died on Sunday. Jail officials reported that five of those deaths took place in 2022.

According to NCCHC, the contractor hired by the county, the organization takes a three-pronged approach when investigating the deaths of incarcerated people. It includes an administrative review, a clinical mortality review, and, if the person dies by suicide, a psychological autopsy.

Allegheny County Jail currently conducts an internal review after a death at the jail. Cases are also investigated by the Allegheny County Police Department’s Internal Affairs Unit and the Allegheny County Office of the Medical Examiner, which determines the cause and manner of death.

“NCCHC will bring in a multi-disciplinary team of physicians, behavioral health experts, and correctional policy and security experts to review the history of deaths that occurred at the jail,” Fitzgerald said in a statement.

Fitzgerald also asked county and jail administration to “cooperate fully with this review and to provide the NCCHC team data and records and participate in first-person interviews.” After the NCCHC performs an independent assessment, it will provide a summary of Allegheny County Jail’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as places where it can improve.

Fitzgerald also recommended that state officials introduce legislation to “also provide authority and jurisdiction for the team members, govern the confidentiality of the information and provide protections for team members from liability while also providing that the proceedings, deliberations and records of the team are privileged and confidential and not subject to discovery, subpoena or introduction into evidence in any civil or criminal action.”

NCCHC previously made recommendations about suicide prevention at the Allegheny County Jail.

Some, including Allegheny County Controller and jail oversight board member Corey O’Connor hope the outside review might help increase transparency at the jail.

Other members of the jail oversight board have asked jail officials for medical records and investigation results for people who died in jail, but Warden Orlando Harper has declined to provide the information, citing the threat of future litigation.

“It’s a start to a process,” O’Connor said. He added that although the jail board is designed to offer independent oversight of the jail, neither the county executive nor the county manager notified the board about the contract before it was publicly announced.

“Hearing of bringing in more experts to see where issues are arising is great, but, ultimately, we do have a jail oversight board that should be given this information,” O’Connor said. “We should be making recommendations based on the findings as well.”

Though it’s still unclear if the oversight board will receive copies of NCCHC’s findings, O’Connor said the final review should be made public.

“You know, everybody has a right to vital information not just on the board but in the general public as well. And the changes that are being made should also be made public.”

The number of deaths at the jail is just one of multiple concerns O’Connor and other board members have shared. O’Connor said the controller’s office has conducted staffing audits at the jail in the past. He plans to reopen the investigation.

Brian Englert, a corrections officer at the jail and president of the Allegheny County Prison Employees Independent Union, often attends oversight board meetings to tell board members about staffing issues, which many worry are harming people incarcerated at the jail.

O’Connor says any reforms at the jail will be based on the NCCHC analysis.

“I think it’s gonna really be determined by what they come up with as the biggest need,” he said.

In an email, Kim Sterling, the vice president of professional services at NCCHC said the group is “working with the county on finalizing the statement of work. Our team of experts will review each death and will evaluate current policies against best practices and the level of care required by the U.S. constitution.”

Warden Harper said jail officials are “always looking for ways to improve our policies and procedures, and NCCHC is one of the top organizations for determining correctional best practices. Our top priority is the safety and security of the facility, and we look forward to NCCHC returning to the jail.”

Officials did not detail what the scope of the work might be or give a timeline for when it might be done.

Julia Zenkevich is a general assignment reporter 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 jzenkevich@wesa.fm.