Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Jail board members raise concerns about potential constitutional rights violations

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Board members Terri Klein and County Controller Corey O’Connor conducted surprise inspections at the jail in October and November.

Concerns about medical care, wait times and staffing dominated the Allegheny County Oversight Board meeting on Thursday. The ongoing issues were back in the spotlight after two board members made surprise visits to the jail.

Board members Terri Klein and County Controller Corey O’Connor conducted surprise inspections at the jail in October and November. They spoke with staff and people incarcerated at the jail and toured intake and central booking, the kitchen and food service areas, medical and mental health services areas, and other locations throughout the facility.

In a report published after the visits, they detailed long wait times in intake and booking. Staff told them employee shortages and COVID-19 protocols meant people could be in intake for up to five days.

“During that time, they get bagged meals only,” Klein wrote. “Breakfast would be milk, juice, two pieces of bread, and cereal.”

Klein also noted that, although people cannot be moved out of intake until they receive a mental health review, “There is currently no night shift for mental health staff,” which can “back things up in Intake.”

Staff also reported that, at some times, no nurse was stationed in the intake center, which “caused some issues for staff to troubleshoot.”

WESA Inbox Edition Newsletter

Start your morning with today's news on Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania.

Both O’Connor and Klein were told 149 people across the jail were in line to see a psychiatrist, with a maximum wait of 71 days. Staff said they experienced high rates of staff turnover, “poor working conditions, lack of medical independence, and unqualified managerial support.”

Dr. Ashley Brinkman, the jail’s health services administrator, acknowledged that certified mental health practitioners and nurses are not always on staff in the intake department. She said other jail employees have been “cross-trained” as a way to fill in the gaps.

Brinkman said the behavioral health team was experiencing a high rate of turnover at the time, but the team is now staffed. She also noted that as of Thursday, 76 people were waiting to see a psychiatrist, with the longest waiting 11 days.

According to the report, the men’s mental health pod is “almost always full.” When O’Connor and Klein visited, 22 of 24 beds were full.

Residents on mental health pods are not given outdoor recreation time. “If approved, they recreate in cages on the pod,” O’Connor wrote. Only two of the four cages have windows, none of which open to outside air.

Board member Bethany Hallam has raised concerns about the mental health pod tier system in the past, noting that it could violate both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the county’s referendum on solitary confinement.

Staff on the mental health pod told O’Connor and Klein that some incarcerated people have mental health issues “that they cannot adequately care for.” Like their counterparts in medical services, mental health staff reported “a lack of resources and independence to administer care based on industry standard.”

The juvenile pod

Meanwhile, juveniles held at the jail complained of collective punishment and mistreatment by corrections officers.

O’Connor wrote that it is “unclear whether and how much outdoor recreation is also provided,” and Klein wrote that children reported being cold and hungry. Coats were not provided until the end of November.

During the board meeting, Warden Orlando Harper said coats will be available “earlier in the year going forward.” After multiple complaints on other pods that temperatures were so cold people’s breath could be seen, Harper said captains were given temperature gauges. Administration also ordered additional suicide-prevention blankets and prepared two empty pods where people could be moved if their pod was too cold.

Although they’re under 18, kids at the jail are housed as adults and can be subject to strip searches, which some said made them feel uncomfortable and unsafe.

“Kids also reported that [corrections officers] talk to them like they hate them,” Klein wrote.

During public comment, many, including Tanisha Long with the Abolitionist Law Center, asked jail officials to take these concerns more seriously.

“None of this is acceptable. And if it’s not something you would like to happen to your family members, then you should not want it to happen to anyone else’s son, parent, … kid, grandfather, grandmother. This is not ok,” Long said.

Other concerns about the constitutional rights of incarcerated people

One incarcerated woman told O’Connor and Klein her headscarf was confiscated, even though she needs it to pray. Board Member Bethany Hallam said this was the second time she heard about religious practices being suppressed at the jail. She received a report that a man who converted to Buddhism while incarcerated was not given a vegan diet, even though he asked for religious accommodation.

The man’s lawyer said he converted about seven months ago, more than 60 days after he was incarcerated. He was told he would not receive religious accommodation because he did not make the request within 60 days of being incarcerated.

Hallam emailed the oversight board and jail administration about the issues, and Harper read his email response at the Thursday meeting. He said incarcerated people are required to contact the chaplain’s office within 30 days of incarceration if they want to convert and request a diet in accordance with their religion.

“This policy is designated to prevent people from changing religions to get different meal trays, which has occurred in the past,” he said, which was met by audible disbelief from some in attendance.

Harper said the man first requested food changes from the health care department and food vendor but was denied.

“Individuals are free to practice any religion they choose and can change their religion with the chaplain’s department at any time. The 30-day window applies only to meal changes,” he said.

Harper declined to say whether the chaplain’s department keeps a list of incarcerated people and their religious affiliation but did say he was aware that some religions require dietary restrictions. He also said he would not discuss any more specifics about the jail’s religion-related policies in public. He offered to discuss them in an executive session.

The jail administration, chaplain’s department and law department plan to meet to “review the specifics of this policy,” Harper told the board.

Some board members also raised concerns about incarcerated people’s rights after a group of West Allegheny High School students toured the facility in December.

Klein questioned the benefit to the high school students and the incarcerated people and staff they visited. Students also spoke to a juvenile held at the facility. Jail administrators could not say whether the child had their parent’s or lawyer’s permission to speak to the group.

An audience member asked if the tour was part of a “scared straight” program meant to deter crime.

Harper said the school requested the visit because “they felt that it was important to see our jail.” They saw an empty pod, reentry services and intake.

“I would just like to publicly state that I’m concerned about high school students… coming in and especially meeting with juveniles,” Klein said. She later added the visits could violate the incarcerated person’s rights to confidentiality.

“I go, I talk to juveniles, but I know I’m not going to share any [identifying] information. So I’m just putting that out as a concern that I have about these visits.”

Harper promised to bring more information about the visit to the board at their February meeting.

No change in sight?

On their October visit, staff told O’Connor and Klein that jail administration “has become more focused on the media around ACJ issues instead of improving basic administration and care for incarcerated residents.”

In an interview with WESA’s The Confluence earlier this week, host Kevin Gavin asked County Executive Rich Fitzgerald about the changes he’d like to see at the jail and how the county treats incarcerated people. Fitzgerald said, “We'll wait to see what the experts make in that recommendation.”

When pushed for more detailed thoughts, Fitzgerald repeated a version of that answer three more times.

And when asked if he was happy with Harper’s work as warden, Fitzgerald said, “Well, I'm not going into personnel issues right now.”

“Any progress in the jail is going to come from this board,” said O’Hara Township auditor and frequent public commenter Darwin Leuba. Holding a cellphone to the public comment microphone, he played Gavin and Fitzgerald’s exchange for the board. He also urged the board to push jail administrators to improve food quality and health care wait times, as well as continually monitor jail temperatures and post them online

“As the board you have the statutory authority to require these things and if the jail doesn’t do it, take them to court,” Leuba said. “We know the executive is not going to do anything about it, so the lives of the folks in the jail are dependent on the quickness of this board to act because we know there’s not going to be any action from the administration over the next year.”

Additionally, Leuba suggested that O’Connor, in his role as county controller, force the jail’s food vendor to pay their staff overtime.

The oversight board will meet again in February.

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