Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Contracts For 'Less Lethal' Weapons, Military-Style Training At Allegheny County Jail Criticized By Oversight Board

The Allegheny County Jail.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA News

Contracts that would bring less-lethal weapons and military-style training to the Allegheny County Jail drew criticism at a meeting of the Jail Oversight Board Thursday.

The no-bid contracts total $442,700 and were approved by administrators last month. When Allegheny County Councilor Bethany Hallam questioned the need for the contracts, Warden Orlando Harper said they were designed to help the jail maintain control without the use of a "restraint chair" or solitary confinement.

A referendum passed by voters in the spring largely banned solitary confinement, as well as the use of restraint chairs and leg shackles.

The training and munitions will “help us de-escalate situations and comply with the referendum,” according to Harper.

“Your plan is to use shotguns and bean bag projectiles to de-escalate? You’re de-escalating with weapons?” Hallam asked.

Harper declined to comment on specific details at Thursday’s meeting, instead suggesting the matter be discussed during an executive session.

The companies contracted by the jail are Lightfield Less Lethal Research and CSAU, or Corrections Special Applications Unit.

The CSAU contract provides equipment for 16 “operators,” including vest and face protection, uniforms, lights, helmet covers and thermal imaging kits. The equipment totals $140,000. The contract also calls for a training program costing $207,770.

The contract states that the training program “addresses violent mentally ill inmates to responding to HIIC and LIIC incidents.”

CSAU’s website states the company relies on decades of military and law enforcement experience to inform how to “mitigate inmate insurrection” in more than 500 facilities across the world. The company says it's goal was "to create new and different approaches to handling inmate riots," and that it "set out to change the culture of the failing, traditional corrections emergency response team practices and tactics."

CSAU has been criticized for using prisoners at York County Prison in promotional videos, according to the York Daily Record.

Lightfield’s $95,000 contract orders projectiles and flashbangs “specifically designed for use inside a facility and at a close range.”

The company’s high-velocity "star" projectiles are designed to reduce the likelihood of penetration, broken bones or deep internal injuries, according to Lightfield’s website. The contract calls for what’s described as 40 buckets of two types of stars, 40 buckets of two types of rubber slugs and 20 buckets of 12-gauge flash bangs.

The jail is currently being sued for excessive use of force. And the contracts come at the same time the jail is seeking proposals for reimagining the facility and reducing incarceration overall.

County Controller Chelsa Wagner, another oversight board member, echoed Hallam’s concerns.

“I can’t see anything about de-escalation [in these contracts],” she said, asking for elaboration at a future meeting about how the munitions, equipment and training would de-escalate tense situations at the jail.

Oversight board chair Judge Kim Berkeley Clark said she would schedule a closed-door executive session on the matter in the next week.

Another contract facing criticism involves Global Tel Link, the provider responsible for the jail’s electronic tablets. Tablets can be used by the incarcerated to read books, watch movies and communicate with loved ones.

Most of the tablet's features cost money to access. It’s up to a person’s family and friends to create an account and send money to use the tablet. The oversight board has also provided $50 monthly toward tablet features.

According to jail officials, upon release, people are given a card with information about how to contact GTL and request the balance of their account. But oversight board members say the company has been holding the money for months.

The amount of money being held by GTL is unclear. “Probably no one knows that,” Clark said.

Clark said she was disturbed that the company has been able to hold onto untold sums of money for so long with no public statement as to why they’ve been unable to release the funds.

For months, oversight board members have requested a representative from GTL attend a public meeting to explain the issue, but the vendor has not done so. Harper said Thursday that the company would have a solution by the end of the summer, but declined to provide a specific timeline.

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.