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Allegheny County Jail Still Has No Timeline To Resume In-Person Visits

The Allegheny County Jail.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA News

Even as four more of Pennsylvania's state correctional institutions announced plans this week to resume visits, officials say there is still no timeline to resume in-person visits at the Allegheny County Jail, which continues to follow COVID-19 restrictions imposed more than a year ago, including its 23-hour lock up protocol.

“Our primary concern is the health and welfare of the individuals and the workers at our facility,” Warden Orlando Harper said at a meeting of the jail’s oversight board Thursday. He cited low vaccination rates among inmates and staff as one reason for the prolonged suspension.

“I’m not going to resume visitation until we get more people vaccinated,” Harper said. Vaccinations are not mandatory for those incarcerated or staff at the jail. Willing incarcerated individuals began getting vaccinated in April.

But only 32 percent of the current population at the jail is fully vaccinated.

“That’s largely due to the transient nature of our population,” Deputy Warden Laura Williams said. According to county data, the average stay at the jail is 64 days.

About 53 percent of jail employees have gotten shots.

Jail officials say those incarcerated at the facility can request a shot by asking a staff member or submitting an electronic or paper request. Information about a person’s vaccination status is collected during the booking process.

But while in-person visitation is on hold at the county level, 15 of Pennsylvania’s state correctional institutions will have reinstated visits by July 9. Time slots have been reduced to accommodate lower capacity limits and visitors must answer a COVID-19 questionnaire and temperature screening. Visitors must also wear a provided disposable face mask for the duration of the visit.

Visits have already been reinstated at 11 state prisons. Officials say they made the decision based on inmate vaccination rates, percentage of COVID-19 cases among prison population and results from a wastewater testing program to detect elevated levels of COVID-19.

But when asked what threshold needed to be met for visitation to resume at the Allegheny County Jail, Deputy Warden Williams said officials were still determining those details.

“COVID-19 is still relatively new,” she said. “Herd immunity is indicated at anywhere between 70 to 90 percent vaccination rates. We are certainly not anywhere near there.”

Williams said the jail is also studying other congregant care settings for guidance about how to safely allow family members and loved ones into the facility.

Allegheny County Councilor Bethany Hallam, a Democrat and member of the oversight board, questioned the risk of visitation at the facility since most visits were already separated by a glass partition.

“There is no contact, no breathing transmission during visits, [at the Allegheny County Jail],” said Hallam.

“Just because the regular visits are between two glasses, those visitors coming to our facility still have to go by correctional employees that still go onto the pods that could pass on that virus,” responded Harper.

Inmates can receive $25 from the incarcerated individual welfare fund if they get vaccinated. Those who do may also eventually receive more time out of their cell.

“If you get the vaccination, we’re going to give you way more out of cell time in hopes that [inmates] get vaccinated,” Harper said.

Officials are still determining how and when the jail will lift its 23-hour lockup protocol. Currently, those incarcerated are permitted one hour of recreation time per day. The restriction was put in place among other efforts to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19.

Harper said inmates living on a pod with a 95 percent vaccination rate have been allowed three to four hours of recreation per day.

“Of course we want to try to give them more recreation, but that’s what we’re able to give them at this present moment,” Harper said. He did not elaborate on the four hour limit.

In the last month, two inmates tested positive for COVID-19 at the Allegheny County Jail, according to Williams. One person came from another correctional facility with an active case of COVID-19. The other was a new admission who contracted the virus outside of the jail.

“We’ve lost 2,000 of our fellow Allegheny County residents during these last [16] months, and none in the jail,” said County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who has been criticized for not attending previous oversight board meetings, but was in attendance on Thursday. “I want to give kudos to the warden and deputy warden.”

Four inmates were taken to a hospital for COVID-19 monitoring in the last year, according to Williams. None were admitted to an intensive care unit or required ventilation. Oversight board chair Judge Kim Berkeley Clark commended the jail’s continued mitigation efforts Thursday.

“I know that many people are really wanting in-person visitation to return to the jail…people do better when they have contact with their families and their loved ones, but we have to still be vigilant,” Clark said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to have people return to visitation in the jail in the not too distant future, but I understand the need for caution.”

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.