Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board ends 2023 with a whimper ahead of major board turnover
The Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board’s final meeting of 2023 was, by several accounts, less fractious than most recent meetings.
Kim Berkeley Clark, President Judge of the Fifth Judicial District Court of Pennsylvania, attended the meeting in-person instead of Judge Elliot Howsie. And according to several public commenters and board member Bethany Hallam, this led to a more civil meeting.
“It seems like [Howsie] came with a really combative attitude and really didn't listen,” said Laura Perkins, who works with Casa San Jose to meet with Spanish-speaking prisoners at the jail. “And so I hope that in the future, when we look at the future of this board, we consider hopefully someone that's not Judge Howsie, because I think he's stopped progress.”
The relatively civil tone of the meeting didn’t stop Hallam from rapid-firing questions at the jail’s leadership about the jail’s policies, procedures and statements for a large portion of the meeting.
Those exchanges led Clark to reprimand Hallam after she began talking over the deputy warden, Blythe Toma, before she could answer a question about whether the jail could hire a professional librarian. Hallam called Toma’s response a “circular non-answer” before Roma could finish responding.
“You're not being respectful,” Clark said.
“I am not getting answers to my questions,” Hallam said.
The board seemed to be caught in a liminal state, where the recriminations of past meetings still lingered, while the public and members of the board were biding their time for a newly constituted board in 2024. County Executive-elect Sara Innamorato ran her campaign in part on a promise to bring reform to the jail and that’s expected to mean Hallam — the board’s most outspoken and, to some, divisive figure — will likely find herself surrounded by more allies than adversaries come January.
Most of the motions that Hallam had been expected to introduce to the board at this meeting — such as one to pay inmates $10 a day for work or another that would change the color of uniforms worn by incarcerated individuals — were delayed until the new year. The only item that passed was a routine motion to send $125 to the inmates commissaries from a jail fund.
The meeting, though, was not without conflict. The biggest disagreement of the night involved whether or not oversight board members should be able to look at jail documents whenever and wherever they want, or whether they have to physically come to the jail to look over documents. For example, Hallam said during the meeting that she would like to look at jail reports about lockdowns but was told by the jail staff that she would have to come in person.
Hallam handed Acting Warden Shane Dady a copy of the statute that created the board and read to him a sentence she had highlighted: “The books, papers and records of the prison, including but not limited to the papers and records of the warden and those relating to individual incarcerated individuals shall … at all times be available for inspection by the board.”
Clark said she believed the “operative” word of the statute included was the word “inspect” because it implied that board members would have to be physically present at the jail to see them.
Hallam focused on the words “at all times,” which she interpreted to mean at any time or place she wants to. “I will inspect them on my computer, laying in my bed if I want to,” Hallam said.
“There's a reason it says for inspection,” Clark said. “It doesn't say that the board is to be provided copies or to be able to take copies out of the jail.”
Four of the board’s members didn’t show up at all. And Clark left at 6 p.m. more than 30 minutes before the meeting ended because of a prior engagement, she said.
Clark designated Terri Klein to lead the final portion of the meeting, although Hallam needled Clark that she should’ve left herself in charge. “You sure you don't want me to run it?” Hallam said. “Go out with a bang?"
“No,” Clark said.
But Hallam believes her time is coming soon. She said her first four years on the board, where she clashed with members, many of whom were appointed by outgoing County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, had radicalized her.
“Sitting up here with these folks month after month, going into the jail, regularly talking to incarcerated folks, seeing firsthand the things that I couldn't have imagined unless I had been in that jail myself, seeing it with my own eyes has truly radicalized me,” she said. “So these next four years, we're going to get some stuff done because I am not playing nice anymore.”