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Outside contractor finds ‘nothing untoward’ in deaths at Allegheny County Jail

90.5 WESA

An outside contractor hired to investigate deaths at the Allegheny County Jail found “nothing untoward” about deaths at the facility over the last five years.

Since January 2017, 27 people have died while in jail custody. County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s administration hired the National Commission on Correctional Health Care Resources last fall to conduct a “historical review of fatalities.” The group previously made recommendations about suicide prevention at the county jail.

Members of the county’s Jail Oversight Board and community members have raised concerns about the number of deaths at the jail, as well as living conditions and the quality of health care. Board members 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.

Allegheny County Jail does conduct internal reviews after deaths 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.

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NCCHC officials toured the jail in November, conducted interviews with Warden Harper and other jail staff and administrators and reviewed jail policies, medical examiner findings and other documents related to the deaths.

The NCCHC report found “no significant trends or common factors that would show a particular weakness or gap in operations” and “no significant investigative findings indicating a criminal offense occurred for any of these cases, whether by other inmates or ACJ staff.”

It offered a mostly positive evaluation of jail operations, with some caveats. The report praised the drop in suicides at the facility in recent years.

“The loss of life while in custody is tragic and should be taken seriously,” the report reads. “Allegheny County has been proactive in their suicide prevention program and by enlisting NCCHC Resources to review the deaths occurring in their jail from 2017 to 2022. They have demonstrated a willingness to identify issues, change processes when indicated, and provide quality care with the future goal of NCCHC accreditation.”

NCCHC did recommend some improvements to be made in the facility.

The investigation found that documentation of in-custody deaths was inconsistent, which “made it difficult to get a clear picture of the incident and the individual’s in-custody behavior and activities.”

The report also noted some discrepancies in the logbooks corrections officers use to record observations about the pods. Logbooks were out of chronological order for some of the in-custody deaths, which could mean that tours of the pods are being logged before they’re completed, or that multiple people are making note of critical incidents.

NCCHC recommended jail administrators have quarterly meetings to “ensure communication” and “consistency.” They also recommended the jail conduct a mortality review and psychological autopsy in the case of a death.

The report also criticized an unnamed member of the Jail Oversight Board, as well as the board’s relationship with jail administration in general.

“The relationship with the JOB is very strained, and it seems to be driven more by one member of that board than the process itself,” the report reads. “It is critical to have open communication and transparency between the two entities to counteract the negativity of the one board member who seems to be trying to drive a negative narrative about everything the ACJ does.”

In a statement, jail spokesperson Jesse Geleynse said the jail “appreciates the time that NCCHC spent at the jail during the review process and the findings contained in the report underscored the work and reinforced the independent reviews of the deaths by [the Allegheny County Medical Examiner] and [Allegheny County Police Department].”

He said the jail “continues to make improvements and changes to our operations that benefit our incarcerated population. We will review NCCHC’s additional suggestions and take action as appropriate.”

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 jzenkevich@wesa.fm.