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Concerns about food, medical care at Allegheny County Jail brought before the oversight board

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

People shared their continued concerns about food, medical care, and the quality of life at the Allegheny County Jail at a jail oversight board meeting on Thursday.

County health department inspectors have visited the jail five times this year, deputy warden of administrative operations and employee development Blythe Toma told the board.

At the end of October, jail officials requested an inspection after they received a complaint about breakfast trays. According tothe food safety assessment report, the food condition was “satisfactory,” but inspectors noted a “medium” pest risk. Rodent droppings were found in the kitchen’s dry storage area and walk-in freezer.

Jail officials said they’ve completed the corrective actions requested by the health department, but public commenters like Alan Guenther said the findings were just the latest in a string of reports about unsanitary conditions.

“[The problems] have gone on for months, they’ve gone on for years. No restaurant anywhere would ever be allowed to stay open with reports of rodent urine on their food serving trays. How can you permit these conditions to exist month after month after month? Would you allow your own loved ones to eat food prepared in such squalor? Why do you force the people in the jail to be treated in this way?” Guenther asked.

Two oversight board members, Judge Elliot Howsie and Allegheny County council member Bethany Hallam, said they both made separate surprise visits to the jail on the same day in September. Hallam said she saw a live mouse and roaches in the kitchen on her visit. Howsie said he did not see anything out of place in the kitchen.

Jail officials said an exterminator visits the facility twice a month.

AUniversity of Pittsburgh School of Social Work survey conducted at the jail last year found that a majority of people incarcerated were “highly dissatisfied” with thefood and medical services.

Last month, jail officials expanded a health care program that began as a pilot in August.

The “Interdisciplinary Patient Care program” is modeled on an outpatient health care office. Now, a health care team works on each floor, instead of operating from a central location in the jail.

Deputy Health Services administrator Ashley Brinkman said the change means each group of patients now has a dedicated health care provider, “Which means one provider consistently gets to know and treat those patients. Continuity of care immediately increases when it’s only one provider taking care of them.”

The jail alsoexpanded its medication-assisted treatment program towards the end of October. Any person who has a methadone prescription before they enter the jail will now continue receiving methadone while incarcerated. Before the change, only pregnant people with a valid methadone prescription could continue their treatment.

In the next phase of the program, people with opioid use disorder who do not have a methadone prescription will be able to start one when they enter the jail. Brinkman did not offer a timeline for when that phase might be implemented.

Officials noted that the jail is still dealing with staffing issues, particularly for health care-related positions. The latest warden’s report lists 69 health care staff vacancies.

Also at Thursday’s meeting, the board voted to create a new subcommittee to investigate why books are being rejected from the jail. Five motions meant to make it easier to send books to incarcerated people were tabled.

The board also took another step towards hiring ajail liaison. County Controller Corey O’Connor, who sits on the board, said they’ve received 42 applications for the position so far. The board voted to close the application on Nov. 10. Then the controller’s office will begin to review the candidates.

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