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Allegheny County Jail Warden Orlando Harper to retire in September

The Allegheny County Jail.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA News

Orlando Harper, the often-controversial warden of the Allegheny County Jail, will retire from his post at the end of next month, county officials announced Tuesday morning. But as if to illustrate the fractious debate over the facility, debate about the process for choosing his successor began almost immediately after his plans to depart were announced.

Orlando’s tenure at the jail began in 2012 and will end on Sept. 29.

“I have been honored to serve in this role for over a decade and am announcing my retirement with mixed feelings,” Harper said in a statement issued by the county.

He said his original intention was to remain through the end of Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s administration, which will end this year. But Harper said, “circumstances have changed with my family, and because of that, I’ve moved that end date up.”

Harper’s job security was likely limited in any case: Fitzgerald was term-limited and could not run for another four-year term, and the candidates seeking to replace him have generally said the jail needed a change at the top.

Sara Innamorato, the Democratic nominee for the job, has explicitly said Harper should be removed: Republican Joe Rockey has been less definitive about Harper’s future but has indicated that he sees a need for new leadership at the facility.

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In recent years, critics of Harper have cited a number of deaths involving people who were either held in the jail or died shortly after being transferred from the jail to hospitals. Critics also contend that Harper is bypassing a ban on solitary confinement passed by voters.

Meetings of the Jail Oversight Board, which monitors conditions at the jail, have been contentious, with frequent sharp exchanges between Harper and board member and County Councilor Bethany Hallam. Two years ago, the board rejected an effort by Harper to hire a controversial training firm whose leader’s credentials have been questioned in other jurisdictions.

In the county-issued statement, Harper implicitly responds to some of those controversies. It quotes him as asserting, “I have always preferred to let actions speak louder than words — sometimes to my detriment. Regardless of the public narrative about the jail, I’ve seen first-hand the great work done here every day.”

The statement itself focused on other aspects of Harper’s track record, praising him for guiding the facility through a re-accreditation process and hailing efforts to offer new job-training opportunities to those incarcerated inside. It cited the jail’s efforts to reduce suicides inside the facility, and programs to allow inmates access to tablets.

It is not clear who will serve in an interim capacity once Harper leaves. But the county said Fitzgerald’s administration would work with Common Pleas Court President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark to find a search firm to begin looking for a permanent replacement.

“The last search took well over a year,” the statement said, “and so the work being done now is intended to give the next county executive a head start in the search process.”

But the Rockey campaign, for one, was quick to say it would consult its own experts, including former state Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel, in the search for a new warden.

“This is a decision that should be made by the next county executive,” Rockey said in a statement. “It’s essential that we have the right people involved. … This is the opportunity to get the right leadership to fix the broken jail.”

There was some bipartisan consensus on that point. Innamorato did not object to Fitzgerald launching a search process, but in a campaign statement said, "We need a transparent, national search for a new warden where all stakeholders — including family members of incarcerated individuals, formerly incarcerated people, the workers at the jail, criminal justice reform advocates, and community members — have a voice in who ultimately holds this position."

Innamorato said the next leader for the facility should be equipped to deal with problems with healthcare, including mental health, and "workforce issues."

Hallam — who when reached by phone about the news said "I am cackling: ha ha ha ha ha" — said that while she was heartened by Harper's pending departure, she was concerned about efforts to jump-start the search for his replacement.

"Warden Harper's reign of terror is one of the main reasons I ran for office," said Hallam, who herself has been incarcerated in the facility for drug-related offenses. "But the most important part is that the person who gave Warden Harper his orders not be allowed to choose his replacement."

In a public statement, Hallam urged that the oversight board initiate a "community-led" process, one that made a point of including "everyone who has been invovled in bringing to light all the harms of the jail that the Fitzgerald administration tried to sweep under the rug, ignore or downplay." She also warned the administration against starting such a process on its own, and urged the board to reject any warden that the administration might propose (though the administration's statement does not suggest it will seek to do so).

The board's powers include confirmation of a warden selected by the county executive, though not over interim replacements.

Hallam said that she and others had begun casting about for potential replacements earlier this year, looking for jails with better safety records and practices espoused by criminal-justice reformers.

" I hope that will be information that is used by the next administraiton," Hallam said. But in any case, "It should be whoever wins the general election that begins this process."

This story will be updated.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.