New Allegheny County Jail oversight board inherits old problems
Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato attended her first jail oversight board meeting Thursday, ushering in a new era for the body. Members and community advocates said they hope the days ahead will be more productive.
Innamorato’s presence on the nine-person board just two days into her tenure was notable. Her predecessor, Rich Fitzgerald, sent a surrogate to the monthly meetings for most of his 12 years as county executive. (Fitzgerald and two current board members are currently facing a lawsuit over the practice.)
Advocates and fellow board members were often critical of Fitzgerald’s absence and his management of the jail, particularly amid rising deaths and growing concerns about living conditions at the facility. Since 2020, 25 people have died in Allegheny County Jail or shortly after being incarcerated there.
But during her campaign, Innamorato pledged to attend oversight board meetings and spoke often about her plans to reform the jail and the county’s criminal justice system. After Thursday’s meeting, she said the board was “going to be a place where there is productive dialogue. And it doesn't mean that everything that the community demands of us is going to happen instantaneously, but there's going to be an honest answer.”
Regular attendees noted Innamorato’s presence, as well as that of the board’s other new members, Common Pleas Court Judges Kelly Bigley and Susan Evashavik DiLucente.
“I am actually heartened to see the county executive here. We haven't had one here in years,” said activist Tanisha Long, a regular presence at the meetings. “I think that shows an investment in our incarcerated people, our friends, our neighbors, and it shows that we care and we're going to start taking things differently.”
Bigley and DiLucente, who was recently chosen as the county’s president judge, replaced Judge Beth Lazzara and Judge Elliot Howsie, the former president judge’s designee.
“I think a lot of people in this room are in general hopeful about what we can do [with] a new board, a new warden,” said Jodi Lincoln, alluding to the vacancy created by former Warden Orlando Harper’s retirement in September. “The possibilities to improve the jail feel more real than ever before.”
But, Lincoln added, “This board has a lot of trust to build with the public at large. This board for years has been extremely antagonistic to the public.”
“We're off to a new start with a lot of new members. And I think it's going to be a new day,” Evashavik DiLucente said.
The board includes three positions to be filled by citizen members, though those seats were empty Thursday. Innamorato said she will nominate replacements this month, and expressed interest in selecting people with lived knowledge of the jail and its issues. That could include formerly incarcerated people and those with medical expertise. County Council must approve her picks.
County Controller Corey O’Connor, Sheriff Kevin Kraus, and Allegheny County Council member Bethany Hallam retained their seats on the board. Hallam, an Innamorato ally and one of Fitzgerald’s most vocal critics, often clashed with former board member Howsie.
Hallam repeatedly questioned jail administrators Thursday about facility policies and practices at the meeting, as she has done in the past. But in a departure from previous meetings, Hallam was backed up by the board’s judges, as Evashavik DiLucente and Bigley asked follow-up questions of jail officials and pressed them to bring requested information to future meetings.
All six members present Thursday voted for a motion to create a bylaws subcommittee — an idea that stalled under the last board.
Innamorato was relatively quiet at the meeting, but did ask jail officials what they are doing to actively recruit new corrections officers and medical personnel.
Speakers at the meeting said they’re hopeful that the new board will be more productive, but they’re still concerned about substandard conditions at the jail, including inadequate health care, poor quality food and ongoing staffing shortages. They noted that despite promises from jail officials and board members to work on such problems, improvement has been slow in coming.
“We want change,” Long said. “I'm giving you the chance and the hope that you're here to do differently.”