Jail Oversight Board Rejects Calls For Mass COVID-19 Testing Of Inmates, For Now

May 8, 2020

Allegheny County’s Jail Oversight Board on Thursday voted down a motion that would have directed the jail to test all inmates for the novel coronavirus. 

The 5-3 vote came after mass testing at corrections facilities elsewhere in the country revealed enormous levels of asymptomatic cases. The board did, however, back a move to give inmates a $50 boost to the money they can spend inside the facility.

Democratic County Councilor Bethany Hallam, the board member who introduced the mass-testing motion, worried that limited testing at the Allegheny County Jail masks the full scope of infection behind bars.

“[T]he only way for us to comprehend the level of COVID-19 inside our jail, and the potential for that to spread out into other communities, is to do the universal testing now,” Hallam said.

She noted that Pennsylvania’s Montgomery County Jail uncovered 30 times more cases of COVID-19 than previously known after implementing mass testing in April. About 19 percent of the facility’s 948 prisoners tested positive. Only six inmates had previously been diagnosed with the disease.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who has authority over the jail, disputed that comparison at a news conference last Wednesday. He noted that, compared to Allegheny County as a whole, Montgomery County has recorded roughly four times as many infections and deaths due to COVID-19 despite having a smaller population.

And on Thursday, the majority of oversight board members said they could not support mass testing without getting more information from medical authorities about what the process would entail. They wondered, for example, whether greater testing would actually help to prevent an outbreak at the jail, and how difficult it would be to obtain enough personal protective equipment to administer the tests.

Opponents of the motion included Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Beth Lazzara, M. Gayle Moss, Sheriff William Mullen, Deputy County Manager Barbara Parees, and Abass Kamara. Hallam, Terri Klein, and County Controller Chelsa Wagner supported the resolution. 

Board chair and Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Kim Clark did not cast a vote. Board chairs do so only to break a tie. But she pledged to schedule a special board meeting on the topic with the director of the county Department of Health, Dr. Debra Bogen. Clark said she would seek to hold the meeting within the next week.

One health department representative did take questions from the board at its regular meeting Thursday. Chief Epidemiologist LuAnn Brink said jail administrators have continued to follow guidelines from the state Department of Health and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That guidance, Brink said, advises testing only those who show symptoms of COVID-19 while the number of cases in Allegheny County remains low.

Of the jail's approximately 1,600 inmates, 59 have been tested after showing symptoms of COVID-19, and 28 have received positive results, Allegheny County Deputy Chief Warden of Health Care Services Laura Williams said Thursday. One inmate has been hospitalized while seven have recovered or been released as of Wednesday, according to the jail’s website.

Williams also reported that 44 staff members have been tested, with five having been diagnosed with the disease. Results for one inmate and three employees were pending Thursday.

With more than 100 coronavirus test kits on hand, Williams said, the jail has the capacity to test inmates based on CDC guidelines.

“As long as we have community disease spread in Allegheny County … Allegheny County Jail will continue to experience positive cases as we continue to accept new inmates into custody,” she said. “We’ve not determined the cost for such testing because that’s not part of our decision-making process. If it’s indicated to test individuals, we will do so.”

If the cost “is not prohibitive at all,” Hallam asked, “what do we have to lose [by testing everyone], really? I don’t see what the downside of universal testing in the jail is.”

Williams said it would be a logistical challenge to marshall enough health care workers and to obtain enough personal protective equipment for them.

And Brink said that while the county had considered extending testing to all inmates, isolating people based on the onset of symptoms is likely a more effective strategy for containing the virus.

“One test … in one moment of time for everybody is not going to be enough to ensure proper isolation and quarantine,” she said. “We test to find disease in order to employ appropriate mitigation measures. We don’t test to calculate the current positivity rate.”

She later noted that people are still being booked at the jail, and that “Any one of those people coming into the jail could have [COVID-19],” meaning they could spread it to those already behind bars.

Jail administrators have said they are following best practices to limit transmission of the virus behind bars. Courts and corrections officials, meanwhile, have freed more than 1,100 people from the jail since mid-March in an effort to reduce the number of people confined at the facility. Such moves have led to a 31 percent decrease in the jail population, excluding 245 inmates being prosecuted in federal court, according to the administrative office for the county courts.

In a separate move, the board voted in favor of a proposal to add $50 to each inmate's commissary card. Klein called the effort "a small thing we can do that can perhaps help make their life at the Allegheny County Jail a little less difficult."