At Thursday’s first Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board meeting of the year, board members questioned jail staff on strip searches of incarcerated juveniles, the number of books in the jail’s library and long wait times for incarcerated individuals for mental health help.
Jail staff also addressed the observations made by board members Corey O’Connor, who is Allegheny County controller, and Terri Klein during two unannounced inspections of the county jail. As summarized in a report, O’Connor and Klein found crowded intake areas, long medical wait times, and meals and medication being administered too early.
While their report found 149 people were in line to see a psychiatrist, with the longest wait 71 days, Ashley Brinkman, the jail’s health services administrator, explained that those numbers do not reflect typical business, as the jail was experiencing a turnover at the time of the visit. Brinkman said that now 76 people are waiting, with the longest wait 11 days.
Additionally, Bethany Hallam, Allegheny County councilperson at-large, expressed concern over the lack of books in the library as described in the report. While there should be 20,000 books, only a few hundred were seen.
When asked where the rest of the books were, Deputy Warden Blythe Toma said that all the books were there.
“For them to say that there are only a couple of hundred … the books are triple stacked. … so if you only look at the surface value they do stack on shelves three deep,” Toma said.
Hallam also inquired about reports of juveniles being strip searched.
Deputy Warden Jason Beasom said that because juveniles are being housed as adults, they are subject to searches with no policy changes for those under 18 years old.
During Hallam’s questioning, she expressed concern about incarcerated individuals being able to practice their religion. She mentioned O’Connor and Klien’s report of a Muslim woman who had her headscarf removed during their visit along with an incarcerated individual who converted to Buddhism but isn’t seeing his religious dietary restrictions met.
Hallam said this man converted to Buddhism seven months ago, more than 60 days after he was incarcerated, and was told that he cannot get a vegan diet as he did not make that request in time.
Harper read a written statement to Hallam that outlines that any individual wanting to convert to another religion must contact the chaplain’s office within 30 days of being incarcerated to request a special religious diet.
“This policy is to prevent people from changing religions to get different meal trays, which has occurred in the past,” Harper said.
Jail staff also reported that the National Commission on Correctional Health Care mortality review ordered by County Executive Rich Fitzgerald last fall has been completed and a report has been drafted. Harper told the board that NCCHC will have a report on suicide prevention efforts at the jail by the next Jail Oversight Board meeting.
During Warden Orlando Harper’s report, he told members that students from West Allegheny High School students recently toured the jail and spoke to an incarcerated juvenile.
A couple of board members shared their concerns over the juvenile’s privacy and the nature of the high school’s visit to the facility. Harper explained that the school requested a tour of the facility, “and we just felt that it was really important for students to see a jail and what happens when you come to jail.”
“My head’s spinning over the visit from high school students to ACJ,” Klein said. “I’m concerned about issues of confidentiality for the juvenile who was interviewed.”
Harper said the jail does not need to have consent from a parent for a juvenile to have a conversation.
During public comments, many community members urged the board to take action in the new year.
Brian Englert, Allegheny County Prison Employees Independent Union president, said he has seen no action from the board despite holding them accountable.
Englert shared that since October, 40 cadets have come through the facility and 19 of them have resigned with no exit interviews.
“We were willing to change our pay scale to offer new hires more money upfront,” he said. “No, nothing. … All three branches of government are represented up here. This board does nothing but sit here and talk and discuss things.”
O’Hara auditor Darwin Lueba played a clip from a WESA radio interview with Fitzgerald in which the county executive wouldn’t comment on personnel issues when asked if he was happy with the warden.
“So it’s very clear that anything that’s going to happen, it’s going to come from the board,” Lueba said. “The lives of the folks in the jail are dependent on the quickness of this board to act because we know that there’s not gonna be any action from the administration of it next year.”