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New survey reveals widespread concerns about medical services, food quality at Allegheny County Jail

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Most people incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail reported high levels of dissatisfaction with medical care and food they received, according to results of a recently released survey.

The jail oversight board’s Inmate Welfare Fund Subcommittee first requested the survey in October 2020. The University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work conducted the poll in the late summer and early fall of 2021, when in-person visitation was suspended, and the jail was on lockdown for 23 hours each day.

“While I think it’s a super useful view of that time period, it’s not necessarily representative of what’s happening there today or what can happen in a truly post-pandemic jail setting,” said Erin Dalton, director of the county’s Department of Human Services. She added that because many of the people who pass through the county jail stay for 15 days or less, the survey focused on people incarcerated for longer periods of time.

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About 66% of the 1,418 people who responded said they were “very unhappy” or “somewhat unhappy” with the jail’s medical services. Many reported long wait times for emergency and routine medical needs. Others indicated that they had not received the proper medications for chronic conditions, and some said their medication was regularly delayed.

Jail Oversight Board member Bethany Hallam read some of the responses shared by incarcerated people at last week’s meeting: “’They often miss my chronic condition medication and antibiotics.’ ‘They're careless. I'm a diabetic, and there are some days I don’t get my insulin, whether it be because the jail is on lockdown, medical is short, etc.’ ‘Prescriptions from outside have not been provided, constantly go without meds for days waiting on refills. Short-staffed a lot, and very sporadic med times.’”

The reports are concerning, said David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh Law professor who was not involved in the survey.

“Nobody expects that the medical unit at the jail will work like the best hospital in the country. It’s not [Massachusetts General Hospital],” Harris said. “But we do have an expectation that it will serve people’s needs when those needs present themselves when they are in custody. When a person is in custody the county has the obligation to provide adequate medical care, whether that is mental health care, dental care, or medical care.”

Warden Orlando Harper told the board the jail was “late in prescribing medications during the height of the pandemic,” but he maintained that the jail has improved since then.

Food was also a major concern for respondents. About 72% were “very dissatisfied” with food in the jail and 75% said they “frequently” supplemented the food they received with purchases from the commissary because they were unhappy with the food provided.

Food has long been an issue at the jail; at an oversight board meeting in June, Hallam said she saw incarcerated people being fed “ground-up bologna and uncooked-looking hashbrowns” instead of the meal posted on the menu for that day when she made a surprise visit to the jail. Others have reported roaches in the food and said they saw rats in food areas.

“Again, nobody is thinking that they’re staying at the Ritz or something like that when they’re at the county jail,” Harris said. “But you expect at least minimal nutrition and food that is not contaminated, and yet there were many reports in that survey of food that was either borderline or actually not fit to eat. And many, many reports of people saying they were hungry, they had to supplement their diets regularly with food bought from the jail commissary at prices that were well above what we would encounter if we walked into a 7/11.”

Harper told the oversight board that an exterminator services the jail twice a week and that they have upped their cleaning and sanitizing routines. He also mentioned the jail’s recenthealth department reports have improved.

Harris, who specializes in criminal justice, said jail administrators would need to focus on medical and food issues going forward.

“Those kinds of basics of human security apply within a custody setting just as they apply anywhere else,” he said.

Harris added it will be important for the new jail liaison position to be filled quickly, “and for that person to take a vigorous role in helping out the jail oversight board as it looks at what is going on at our jail and how things could be improved.”

“We’ve had deaths there at a rate that is higher than what we would expect given peer comparisons of the jail and we just can’t let that go on. That’s not acceptable,” Harris said.

In a statement, Allegheny County Jail officials said, “Jail leadership always looks for ways to best serve its incarcerated population and takes constructive feedback seriously. It is important to note that the jail only received the survey results two weeks ago so there has not been enough time to address every single concern, but the leadership team has already begun an item-by-item review to determine what changes are recommended and possible. Also, even before the survey was made available to jail leadership, a number of concerns were already addressed, based on Jail Oversight Board recommendations and our on-going efforts to provide for every need of every incarcerated individual. And while the survey was conducted in fall of 2021 during a spike in the COVID pandemic locally, the jail intends to conduct similar surveys yearly to better ascertain needs and address them.”

Allegheny County Jail plans to provide a full written response to the survey to the oversight board. The survey results will also be made public.

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