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Survey finds continuing concerns about food, medical care and safety at Allegheny County Jail

An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA

People incarcerated at Allegheny County Jail continue to report issues with food and medical care, and others worry about physical abuse and their own safety, according to a recent survey from the Pennsylvania Prison Society.

The Pennsylvania Prison Society monitors jails and prisons across the commonwealth and advocates for incarcerated people and their families. This was the group’s first facility-wide survey of the Allegheny County Jail.

The questionnaire was conceived of after local volunteers at a county jail oversight board meeting recommended conducting regular quality-of-life surveys at the jail. President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark, who is represented on the board by Judge Elliott Howsie, began working with jail officials, the county Department of Human Services and the Prison Society to figure out the logistics.

A total of 330 people responded to the voluntary survey, which was distributed on jail-provided tablets for about a month last summer. People with acute mental health issues held on tiers 4 and 5 do not have access to tablets.

The survey found that 83% of people were able to make a phone call at least once a day, and 87% had the ability to do laundry once a week.

The county’s involvement and “willingness to bring increased transparency” are commendable, said Noah Barth, the prison monitoring director at the Pennsylvania Prison Society. But he added that some of the responses indicate ongoing problems at the facility.

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About 95% of respondents said they regularly went hungry.

“This is a shocking number that this many people say that they are regularly going hungry in a facility that is legally mandated to provide for their care,” Barth said.

“People going hungry on a regular basis should not happen, especially when they're in a state run institution. There is no reason why [the] government should not be providing for the very basic health [needs] in the form of nutritious meals to the people to whom they are legally responsible.”

Others reported going hungry every day, receiving cold or rotten food, or seeing rodents, bugs and rodent droppings on their food trays or in the kitchen. Some said they did not receive the alternative meals they were entitled to for health or religious reasons.

“The food isn't necessarily rotten but a lot of it is inedible,” one respondent wrote. “There are meals like ground up hotdogs over undercooked, unflavored noodles in water. And whatever meat byproduct they are using in meals is horrible. It smells spoiled and tastes nothing like ground meat.”

Warden Orlando Harper said he disagreed with the accounts relayed in the survey.

“With [Summit Foods, the facility’s food provider], we've added 400 more calories [to] the menu. So, instead of 2800 calories per day, we offer the inmates 3200 calories per day,” Harper told WESA. “We feel as though we are providing them with enough food throughout the day.”

He noted that the jail has established a new cleaning and extermination plan in response to concerns about cleanliness, and has asked the Allegheny County Health Department to do more frequent kitchen inspections. Administrators also plan to hire a food service manager and food service supervisor to oversee exterminations and kitchen operations. In the meantime, a captain and a sergeant are responsible for those roles in the kitchen.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Summit said the company “continues to abide by the daily meal requirements outlined in our service contract, as agreed upon with Allegheny County Jail. Specifically, these requirements include:

  • Daily calorie intake must be a minimum of 3200 calories
  • Portion size of applicable protein must be a minimum of 4-6oz
  • Leafy greens shall be offered regularly in place of iceberg lettuce
  • Composition of diets/meals should vary and should meet recommended percentage of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins
  • Juice shall be 100% fruit juice 

As always, we abide by all food safety standards and protocols and will continue to work with the County to modify our menu options upon their request.”
The jail’s current contract with Summit expires on June 30. A new request for proposals has been issued to select the next food vendor.

Medical care

A number of people reported that their “physical and mental healthcare needs are not being met.” Some said their requests for medical visits went unanswered or they experienced long wait times for medical attention and medications. Others said they had trouble getting their prescription medications.

“It took the jail 85 days to give me a replacement medication for my meds I was on when I entered the jail,” one person said.

Though 65% of respondents said they had been diagnosed with a mental health condition, just 5% said they regularly received individual therapy and 3% said they participated in regular group therapy.

Harper said the survey was taken during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the jail has been on intermittent lockdowns as part of COVID mitigation efforts. Most of those have now been discontinued. Since the survey was administered, Harper said the wait time for non-emergency health care requests dropped from 45 days to 4.5 days.

Jesse Geleynse, a spokesperson for the jail, said that “there is no medication wait time, rather a process that must be completed.” Medications are prescribed by Allegheny Health Network providers, or if a medication was prescribed outside the jail they must verify the prescription before including it in the daily medication passes.

As for the allegation of an 85-day wait for medication, “that was an anonymous, single comment in a survey and without additional details we can’t verify.

Allegheny Health Network provides medical care in the jail. Their work is supplemented by “non-provider medical staff employed by the county or contracted through agency services.”

“We’re doing everything in our power to improve,” Harper said. “I think we've taken tremendous strides to improve wait times at the Allegheny County Jail.”


Some incarcerated people said they were witness or subject to mental and physical abuse from corrections officers and staff. About 62% of respondents said they felt unsafe at the jail.

“This facility is not a safe facility,” a respondent wrote. “Many of the corrections officers do not do anything to prevent assaults from happening. They just say if you fight or get into a fight then you will be sent to the hole where you are isolated and treated even worse.”

The longer a person stayed in jail, the more they felt unsafe, which “seems to indicate that there really is danger. And the longer you're there, the more you're exposed to it,” said Barth, with the Pennsylvania Prison Society. “So, this is a very concerning finding.”

“All citizens should be able to go to bed feeling safe at night regardless of where they live. And the idea that 62% of people in a state-run institution feel unsafe should be deeply concerning, not only for county government, [but] for everyone who lives in that county,” he continued. “These are our fellow citizens and community members, and they will eventually leave the jail and re-enter our community. Experiencing violence, experiencing abuse or assault, or even just living through the traumatic experience of hearing that on a regular basis impacts people, and it impacts their sense of fairness and investment in society.”

“We require all of our staff to ensure that they treat everybody with dignity and respect,” Harper said. He added that staff have received mental health first aid and de-escalation training.

Most respondents who said they were physically abused by staff did not report it to jail officials, though some did name the people they said were responsible. Seven corrections staff were named in more than one incident. Those names were shared with jail administrators in November 2022.

Harper said they are looking into the allegations, though the process has not begun. Harper did not offer a timeline for when the investigation would start.

What the survey means for the jail

The survey results give insight into just one point in time at the jail, Barth said, but point to larger continuing issues at the jail.

“Broadly speaking, I think it is important that citizens have some level of trust in their government. And, for better or worse, a jail is a state institution and the people incarcerated are citizens,” he told WESA. And when there’s a “disconnect” between the state institution and the citizens, “that erodes overall function.”

Poor food quality and sanitation issues can lead to a lack of trust between incarcerated people and jail officials, and “that leads to an overall breakdown in communication and relations within the jail, or at least has the potential to,” according to Barth.

“Jails are not easy environments to run or to live in, but ideally, they can be maintained at a safe, calm level. But when people don't trust each other or are not communicating well, then there's greater potential for things to start to break down.”

Barth said that the survey “highlights clear problems,” but he’s encouraged by the county’s willingness to address them.

“It's our hope that the concerns raised by people inside of the jail … will be treated with the seriousness they deserve and that the county will respect and respond to the cares and concerns of their citizens being held in their jail.”

The Pennsylvania Prison Society plans to conduct the survey twice a year going forward.

Harper’s full written response to the survey and its findings can be read here.

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