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Allegheny County Jail to resume in-person visits if COVID-19 case numbers remain low

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Katie Blackley
/
90.5 WESA

People incarcerated at Allegheny County Jail will soon be able to receive in-person visits from loved ones.

As COVID-19 case counts in Allegheny County continue to decrease, officials said the jail has revised its testing policies and is finalizing an in-person visitation policy.

“We will have social visitation before the next [Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board] meeting if the cases remain as they are,” Warden Orlando Harper said at an oversight board meeting on Wednesday.

According to the county, 1,536 people are incarcerated at the jail; as of Feb. 25, there were five positive cases in the population and one pod was in isolation. Two employees tested positive for COVID, and an additional employee was in quarantine.

Harper declined to discuss specifics of the visitation plan at the meeting.

“Me and my team, we’re still trying to formulate a plan as to how we can do it safely,” he said. “We’re in the process of coming up with that plan.”

The county did release a draft of the in-person visitation policy, on which people can comment and respond.

Under the draft, fully vaccinated people in general population units or administrative custody could receive in-person visits. Visitors and attorneys must also show ID and proof of vaccination. The jail will implement stricter cleaning routines for visitation booths. Masks will still be required for everyone, regardless of vaccination status. Some in-person chaplaincy and re-entry programs could also resume.

People continue to receive a rapid antigen test upon arrival and a PCR test after 10 days.

A plan to return to in-person visitation is a long time coming. Jail oversight board members have been asking for a plan for at least a year.

While many state correctional institutions in Pennsylvania restarted in-person visits last summer, Allegheny County Jail did not. At the time, officials cited low vaccination rates among incarcerated people and staff.

Currently, about 44% of incarcerated people are fully vaccinated and another 2.9% are partially vaccinated. The percentages can change due to the “transient nature” of the jail’s population.

The announcement comes after a report by jail administrators, which found that 44 people were held in isolation in Allegheny County Jail in January. The jail was on a facility-wide lockdown for almost all of January in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19. Some worry this could make it hard to know if the jail is complying with a 2021 referendum that banned most uses of solitary confinement and required at least four hours of recreation time per day.

Jail staff said a personnel shortage is exacerbating problems.

In February, 13 shifts had “no medical or no mental health staffing in intake,” said Brian Englert, a corrections officer at the jail and president of the Allegheny County Prison Employees Independent Union. He estimated the corrections department is short “at least 50 officers.”

Sometimes, the staffing issues mean people do not get their medication on time, Harper said.

“We do everything in our power to provide the medications in a timely fashion, and sometimes medications are late,” he told board members.

Harper said he did not have the number of vacancies in the corrections or medical and mental departments readily available.

Judge Elliot Howsie, who sits on the jail oversight board, said the numbers were discussed in an executive session with the warden prior to the public meeting.

“There was a concern about some of this information being disseminated publicly,” Howsie said.

Board members said they plan to hold more private executive sessions with the warden before public meetings in the future.