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Allegheny County Jail ‘grossly understaffed,’ new audit reveals

The Allegheny County Jail.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA News

Allegheny County Jail is “grossly understaffed,” according to a new audit from the county controller’s office. A report released Tuesday found that the jail is short-staffed by more than 100 corrections officers and more than half of the facility’s budgeted healthcare positions are vacant.

“Running a 24/7 operation is very difficult on anybody,” said County Controller Corey O’Connor. But he added that it’s especially hard for the employees forced to work overtime because of the shortages and their families.

The audit included the period from January 1, 2021 through September 30, 2022. Some data and records through December 31, 2022 were reviewed as well.

As of September 2022, the jail employed about 377 corrections officers, or COs. The audit found that the facility needs closer to 504 officers to cover every shift without overtime, or 468 if some overtime is still required.

In December 2022, the jail had 486 budgeted CO positions, 112 of which were vacant.

When the jail doesn’t have enough COs to staff each post, those who are already working are required to work overtime to meet appropriate staffing levels. The county paid COs more than $8.9 million in overtime in 2021 and $6.8 million between January and September 2022. O’Connor said that overtime is currently necessary because there are not enough COs available to fill every position at the jail.

Though the number of budgeted CO positions increased 8% from 2021 to 2022, the number of vacant positions in the same period increased as well from 9% to 23%, suggesting the unfilled positions are a “substantial” contributing factor to the shortages, auditors argued.

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Overuse of overtime has been a known problem at the jail; a 2010 analysis of the jail’s use of overtime found that the facility didn’t employ enough officers to work regular time.

“Overtime at the Jail is a decades-long, vicious cycle that has not been effectively addressed resulting in cyclical burnout, stress, and turnover amongst COs,” auditors wrote. “These long hours are a major contributor to CO fatigue, stress, poor health, and high turnover.”

Officials interviewed multiple COs for the audit; they also reviewed resignation letters and exit interviews, which revealed that work hours are the top reason COs decide to leave their jobs at the jail.

The scheduling process laid out in the jail’s manual, which requires multiple electronic spreadsheets and physical log books to be reconciled, further complicates staffing decisions, auditors said in the report. The actual number of COs necessary to staff the jail changes daily based on current needs, but those changes can’t be easily analyzed due to the way records are kept.

O’Connor’s office recommends jail administrators implement an electronic scheduling system, adopt stress-management and wellness programs and increase recruiting efforts in surrounding counties after the residency requirement was lifted earlier this year.

Both O’Connor and Warden Orlando Harper noted that the jail and other county agencies have experienced “unprecedented” hiring challenges exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Enticing people to work in prisons and jails has been an added challenge. In his response to the audit findings, Harper referenced a 2019 study from the National Institute of Justice, which found that CO vacancy rates in some prisons neared 50%, with some annual CO turnover rates as high as 55%.

“We have not been idle, waiting for something to change,” Harper wrote. He said administrators have taken steps to boost hiring and retention, including the advertisement of open positions, attending and holding job fairs and increasing the frequency of CO applications, testing and cadet classes.

Jail healthcare positions have high vacancy rates

The audit also found major vacancies in healthcare positions staffed by county employees and temporary agencies used to cover those county vacancies. (Allegheny Health Network provides advanced practitioners, such as physicians and psychiatrists. Those positions were not examined in the audit.)

Jail administrators budgeted for a total of 146 healthcare positions in 2022, the audit said, but, as of December 2022, 84 of those were vacant. An analysis found that staffing agency employees and county employee overtime covered the equivalent of about 20 full-time positions that year. When those figures are taken into account, the number of vacant positions is reduced to 24. Still, that 44% vacancy rate shows healthcare positions in the jail are “grossly understaffed,” auditors wrote.

Jail officials struggled to retain staff in some positions more than others. Mental health services accounted for the majority of vacant full-time union positions not filled by temporary agencies, auditors noted. The audit found that only one of eight budgeted therapist positions was filled for six months in 2022; all eight were unfilled by the end of the year.

Auditors recommended offering hiring incentives, implementing telehealth visits when possible, and improving communication between management and staff to decrease the staffing shortage.

In his response, Harper said healthcare services were “misrepresented … in terms of services provided, frequency and location of services, and levels of care available within the facility.” He did not specify what was incorrect.

Harper also noted that the audit “did not include any measurement of recruitment efforts or data” in its analysis and disagreed with the assessment that hiring conditions are not improving. Harper said the jail has hired additional managers and educators to help with recruiting, onboarding and employee engagement and strengthened relationships with local colleges and universities, among other efforts. He also said administrators had implemented bonuses for referring candidates who were eventually hired, but “no healthcare staff participated.”

Effects ‘trickle down’ to incarcerated people

The audit's findings largely confirmed ongoing reports from jail employees, incarcerated people and community members who have called attention to what some describe as a staffing crisis at the jail.

Surveys given to healthcare and correctional staff earlier this year found strained relationships between management and employees, allegations of toxic work environments and concerns that poor working conditions for employees were putting incarcerated people at risk.

O’Connor echoed that concern.

“It's a trickle down,” he said. “If you're stressed at your job, we're not supporting the individuals working there. But then what does that affect? The people that are housed there.”

“It puts a lot of people at risk when you're overworked — the individuals housed there as well as the individuals that are staffing [the facility].”

Brian Englert, the president of the Allegheny County Prison Employees Independent Union, which represents corrections officers in the jail, said the audit was “great” but also “too little too late.”

“We have [borne] the burden of the county's ineptitude on getting people hired,” Englert said.

He noted that forced overtime makes new hires’ first years “untenable.”

“Our contract says that you will work five days in a row. They have them working six or seven days in a row,” plus unscheduled overtime, Englert said.

“In training, they're told that they may get forced to work two or three overtime shifts a week. We tell them that's simply not true,” he said. “We tell them to hang in there for the first year. Hopefully they'll hire some more people and it'll get better.”

But Englert added that, so far, things haven’t gotten better. He stressed the need for more complete and holistic training classes for new recruits, a more active push to hire people from outside Allegheny County and the importance of setting a long-term hiring goal and working towards that.

Because the jail is a 24/7 operation, “it is nearly impossible to eliminate the need for overtime,” auditors said. The goal should instead be to reduce overtime and understaffing.

With Harper set to retire in September, a new county executive to enter office and a project to “reshape” the jail in the works, O’Connor said he hopes the audit will provide valuable information and data to incoming county leaders as they implement their vision for the jail.

“It's important to have concrete numbers when we talk about solving problems in this county. And this gives us concrete numbers to hopefully make some changes,” he said.

Read the full report here.

Updated: August 29, 2023 at 3:39 PM EDT
This story was updated to include comment from the Allegheny County Prison Employees Independent Union, which represents COs working at ACJ.
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