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Advocates, jail staff ask for input on search for new Allegheny County Jail warden

A large jail.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Allegheny County has launched a national search for a new warden at the county jail, but some advocates worry community members won’t have much of a role in the process.

Officials announced last month that the county had retained POLIHIRE, a Washington, D.C.-based search firm, to identify and vet candidates for the warden position. The firm will work alongside a nine-member search committee that includes County Executive Sara Innamorato, county’s Housing Authority police chief Mike Vogel, former state Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel, and a handful of county leaders in Human Services and other departments.

Abigail Gardner, a spokesperson for the county executive’s office, said the idea was to bring perspectives from social services and other backgrounds, rather than just corrections officials. “The philosophy is to create a more restorative justice system starting with transformational and inspirational leadership and a commitment to provide re-entry support and services,” she said.

The panel also includes county councilor Bethany Hallam, an outspoken member of the Jail Oversight Board who was previously incarcerated in the facility herself.

She said she is concerned that more than half of the search committee members are county administrators. (One of them is senior deputy county manager Steve Pilarski, a former Jail Oversight Board member with whom she often tussled during meetings.) And echoed calls to include corrections staff, jail medical employees and more community members.

“I really think that we need to balance that with more community voices, more rehabilitative-focused voices. Because that's how we could fix the jail,” she said.

Others note that the committee doesn’t include any current jail employees.

“We're the original stakeholder. We're care, custody and control. We actually advocate on behalf of inmates every single day,” said Brian Englert, the president of the Allegheny County Prison Employees Independent Union, which represents corrections officers, or COs, in the jail.

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Jail administrators have struggled to fully staff the facility in recent years. That has resulted in thousands of hours of forced overtime for COs, creating a vicious cycle: An audit from the County Controller’s office released last year found that overlong work hours are the top reason COs decide to leave their jobs at the jail.

“I would expect that there would be some sort of communication with the union as, ‘Hey, what would the union like to see from a warden to stop your churn rate of 46% of all new officers that leave in their first year?’” Englert said.

“I'm not saying in any way, shape or form should we actually be the decision maker here. But we should absolutely have input.”

Gardner said that corrections officers and advocacy groups will have an opportunity to be heard.

“Staff will be engaged as part of the interviews and focus groups and multiple members of the committee will bring knowledge to the topic,” said Gardner. “We think that is an appropriate balance between soliciting input and protecting the confidentiality needed for a hiring search.”

Gardner added that the search committee and POLIHIRE are compiling a list of organizations and individuals to take part in interviews and focus groups.

The public will also have an opportunity to give feedback during the public comment portion of the July 17 Jail Oversight Board meeting.

Warden Orlando Harper retired in September amid controversy over his tenure. Shane Dady, a deputy superintendent with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, is serving as acting warden.

But POLIHIRE and the search committee should be looking for someone “very, very different” from Harper, said John Kenstowicz, who organized a community panel that offered recommendations on the hiring process. Both Hallam and Englert participated, alongside other formerly incarcerated people, current and former jail employees, people with expertise in law and the criminal justice system, and community members.

“What we need is a leader,” Kenstowicz said. “We need somebody that's going to set out a plan and really work on the difficult problems there with the jail, especially with the staffing crisis. We need somebody that can connect with a lot of different people, provide a leadership quality, and get people aligned with … new goals on where that jail should be headed.”

In an April letter sent to Innamorato and the Jail Oversight Board, the panel recommended that the next warden employ “bottom-up communication,” rather than what Kenstowicz called the “archaic” top-down model currently in use.

Gardner said the letter was “very helpful” and POLIHIRE “is incorporating the recommendations into their work.”

In their proposal to the county, POLIHIRE leaders highlighted their previous experience “identifying leaders who work with detained populations.” The group worked on searches for the executive and senior leadership teams of the District of Columbia Juvenile Justice Center, District of Columbia Department of Corrections, and the executive for the Prince George’s County, Maryland Corrections Department, among others.

“We prioritize leadership that understands crime as a symptom of gaps in the fabric of society,” said POLHIRE, whose contract is worth up to $55,000. It also stressed the importance of engaging community groups, residents, and employees to give “the broader community a real voice in these critical hiring processes.”

Some have cautioned against expecting too much from any new hire. Among them is Brad Korinski, who represented former county controller Chelsa Wagner on the Jail Oversight Board when he was the office’s chief legal counsel.

“The warden is not a panacea,” he said.

Korinski said that for a warden to make positive changes at the jail, county leaders must first be “committed to improving all of the things that really hold the jail back,” like staffing shortages and inadequate medical care. He also recommended reducing the daily jail population and reexamining its culture.

“If we had a wave pool that continually injured people, I don't think that we would look to the next parks director as the way to prevent people from being injured,” Korinski said. “I don't think it's the identity of the director or the warden [that is most important]. Let's try to fix the pool.”

The county is expected to announce the new warden in October. The candidate must be approved by the Jail Oversight Board.

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