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Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board picks liaison, despite objections

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

The Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board selected drug court coordinator and former probation officer Karen Duffola to fill the long-awaited liaison position at its monthly meeting Thursday.

The liaison will provide the oversight board with regular assessments of what’s going on at the jail. The position is meant to increase the facility’s accountability to the oversight board and the public. It’s faced increased scrutiny in recent years over ongoing issues with health care, staffing, living conditions and multiple deaths of incarcerated people.

The board voted to authorize the position in June 2021 but didn’t officially create the position until July 2022.

Thursday’s vote to approve Duffola was split; Allegheny County Councilor and board member Bethany Hallam objected to the nomination, as did Ryan Herbinko, a representative for county Controller and board member Corey O’Connor.

Hallam noted that the vote was not included on the agenda and the public did not have an opportunity to weigh in on the choice, which she said could violate the state’s Sunshine Act. Though the posted agenda included public comments before any old business, board member Judge Elliott Howsie changed the order to accommodate others with prior engagements.

The Sunshine Act requires groups governed by state law to post an agenda including a list of any deliberations or official actions, like votes, that might be taken at the meeting no later than 24 hours in advance.

The law also says groups must provide “reasonable opportunity” for members of the public to comment on “matters of concern, official action or deliberation” before the board takes any official action or votes.

“The manner by which this was all conducted carries at least the perception of possible unethical behavior, which will undoubtedly only serve to seriously, seriously undermine the credibility of not only this liaison, but this whole entire board,” Hallam said as part of a statement objecting to the vote. “I am disgusted. I am disappointed in the way this entire process has gone, including the way that we are voting right now in clear violation of the law.”

Multiple attendees voiced their disapproval with the agenda change and the fact that they did not have an opportunity to comment on the board’s choice.

“Don't silence us,” Tanisha Long, a community organizer with the Abolitionist Law Center said later during public comment. “This is a public meeting. You're here for us. The Sunshine Act exists for a reason.”

Reading a statement from the controller, Herbinko said he had “serious concerns” that a memorandum of understanding for the liaison’s responsibilities proposed by the office would not be followed.

“If we don't have a proper framework in place with this liaison, then nothing's going to be accomplished,” he said. “We would want an MOU in place with this liaison before we even vote on it, or else it's not going to be anything worthwhile.”

Community members and advocates also questioned the jail’s intake procedures and detoxing practices at the meeting Thursday after three people who recently spent time at the Allegheny County Jail or a Renewal Inc. detention center in downtown Pittsburgh have died in less than a month.

James Washington, 42, died May 8 at UPMC Mercy Hospital after he was transferred from the Allegheny County Jail intake department. William Spencer, 24, and Damon Leroy Kayes, 54, died at Renewal Inc., an alternative housing option for some who would otherwise be incarcerated at Allegheny County Jail. It also houses people incarcerated at the state and federal levels. Both Spencer and Kayes were in custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons when they died.

A March report from the National Commission on Correctional Health Care Resources about deaths at the Allegheny County Jail found that the facility’s intake department was not in compliance with NCCHC standards.

“The intake process for those who will remain in custody and those who will bail out is two-tiered,” the report reads, and the “bifurcation of this process results in serious negative outcomes.”

Investigators found that people were kept in the intake department for far longer than is customary at other jails. They warned the practice could mean some incarcerated people may not be treated or identified as requiring additional care.

Washington was brought into the jail on Friday, May 5, and was administered two drug screens. He tested positive for multiple substances, including the powerful opioid fentanyl, and was placed on a “detox protocol.” He was found unresponsive Sunday morning and pronounced dead the next day.

The NCCHC report deemed it “essential” for the jail to update its medically supervised withdrawal and treatment programs. It noted that the facility’s “detox nurse” works the day shift Monday through Friday. There is no detox nurse on duty when people are brought into intake after business hours or on the weekend.

The report found that “This sporadically timed assessment is inadequate for the management of these patients.” Authors also identified “multiple patients whose detoxification was poorly managed.”

“The way we have set up right now, it's the nursing staff that are in intake that are initiating the detox protocols,” jail health services administrator Dr. Ashley Brinkman said at the oversight board meeting Thursday. The detox nurse manages detox protocols after they’ve been moved to the housing units.

Jail officials have struggled to fully staff the facility in recent years. Multiple members of the jail’s medical staff have also recently left. The NCCHC report noted that “some areas, especially intake housing in 4A, appear to be staffed below where they should be.”

Harper said officials created a critical care unit and discontinued cell-side mental health interviews in response to the NCCHC report. The report found that the jail does not do mortality reviews and highly recommended they implement the practice.

Harper said the jail is “going to try to do” a mortality review of Washington’s death, as recommended by the report.

Since 2020, 18 men have died after being incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail.

Updated: May 19, 2023 at 8:16 AM EDT
Updated to clarify the custody of the two men who died at Renewal, Inc.
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