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Allegheny County Council could weigh in on Jail Oversight Board operations

The Allegheny County Courthouse in Downtown Pittsburgh.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

On Tuesday, Allegheny County Council was presented with bills that sponsor Bethany Hallam said would provide more financial support to prisoners inside the county jail – and a clearer role for the Jail Oversight Board.

One proposed ordinance would require that revenues from phone calls, tablet usage, and commissary purchases at the Allegheny County Jail be sent to the Incarcerated Individual Welfare Fund (IIWF). Fund proceeds are used to improve conditions for those incarcerated at the jail.

“Those revenues should go towards the betterment of the facility in which those individuals are held,” Hallam said.

Currently, Hallam said, only profits from sales at the jail commissary are directed to the fund. Profits from jail phone calls were also sent to the IIWF for a time, she said, but were diverted a decade ago to shore up a “less healthy fund balance” for the county.

Now that the general fund holds in excess of $53 million, Hallam argues, it’s time that jail revenues are used to benefit the people incarcerated there.

Tablets were introduced more recently, but though they offer a number of free features including eBooks, others like text messaging and video calls cost money. Users must also pay to access movies, news and games. If the bill is made law, profits from those sales would be sent to the IIWF.

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The county’s Jail Oversight Board currently allots each incarcerated person $125 per month from the IIWF for commissary and tablet usage. The fund has also been used to install a basketball hoop on the juvenile pod.

There is no existing guidance in the county code for how IIWF money should be spent. Hallam said she would ultimately prefer that the county not profit off of incarcerated people, but the ordinance represents a stopgap measure. She estimates the change brought by her bill would move an additional $4.3 million into the IIWF, on top of the $3 million in commissary profits allocated to the fund.

Hallam is not the only official thinking along these lines. Democratic state Rep. Chris Rabb introduced a bill in August to require state and local correctional facilities to spend profits from commissary purchases, telephone and internet services and labor done by incarcerated people to benefit incarcerated people. It is pending in the House Judiciary Committee.

The second ordinance introduced in council would amend the county code to codify jail oversight board operations, and allow the board to retain an independent solicitor.

Hallam has been pushing for the board to get its own legal counsel for some time, but some fellow board members have been unreceptive. The board is currently advised by an assistant county solicitor who works in county government, which Hallam said could create a conflict of interest if the board needs to take stances that the county executive and warden disagree with. She said the board should be advised by someone who is not directly employed by the county executive, as county solicitors are.

If the proposed ordinance passes the full council and is approved by County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, the county would be required to set aside “reasonable funding” in the budget to pay for legal services for the board, not exceeding $1,500 per month.

The board would vote to hire the solicitor at a public meeting, much like it did when they hired a jail liaison earlier this year.

Though state law lays out the makeup of the board and gives it statutory authority, it does not discuss issues like how the board should retain legal counsel. Meanwhile, board members have butted heads over conflicting views of the board’s authority.

The board is currently being sued for allegedly violating Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act during its initial vote to hire a jail liaison. Hallam herself is suing multiple oversight board members, demanding that they attend meetings in person rather than sending surrogates. She added that she believes a “large reason” for the suits is that “there is currently no one to enforce the letter of the law, to [ensure] that we follow the law in our statutory duties as oversight board members.”

It’s not clear other members of the Jail Oversight Board support the move. County Controller Corey O’Connor, who sits on the board, declined to comment on the bill and there’s been little serious discussion on the issue during oversight meetings. No other board member appears to be on record requesting independent counsel.

Howsie and Hallam recently clashed on the issue of the board’s authority during a discussion about whether incarcerated workers should be paid. Hallam was the sole “yes” vote and Howsie the only “no” vote. He said the proposal lacked precedent, and the oversight board does not have the authority to direct the county to fund new programs.

Regardless of whether the bills pass, change is coming to the oversight board. New members, including county executive-elect Sara Innamorato, will join in January.

Both bills were referred to the council’s committee on budget and finance.

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