Pennsylvania incarcerates people at more than five times the rate of many of its main global allies, including the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Mexico, and Italy, according to data from the Prison Policy Initiative. Mass incarceration is often seen as a public health crisis in the country at large because people in American jails and prisons suffer disproportionately from chronic illness and mental and behavioral health issues. Experts believe being incarcerated or having loved ones behind bars shortens peoples’ lifespans. "Mass incarceration was a major public health crisis before the outbreak of COVID-19, but this pandemic has pushed it past the breaking point," said Udi Offer, director of the ACLU's Justice Division in 2020.
In Pittsburgh, the Allegheny County Jail continues to face its own scrutiny over its handling of deaths of individuals in custody, safety and health care for trans people, COVID statistics, and more. To keep the public informed, Pittsburgh City Paper is launching a new monthly watchdog feature — CP Jail Watch — to keep tabs on the facility and its leaders.
Our first installment follows below. You can continue checking back every month for new reports online at pghcitypaper.com.
Quote of the month:“Allegheny County can’t afford to wait until [Allegheny County Executive] Mr. Fitzgerald steps down at the end of next year to change leadership at the jail. Mr. Fitzgerald ought to show the warden the jailhouse gate, or, for the good of the jail and community, Mr. Harper should walk through it himself.”
What happened?The Post-Gazette editorial board called for ACJ Warden Orlando Harper’s removal after a flurry of conflicting op-eds painted contrasting impressions of conditions at the jail. In particular, one penned by Harper drew criticism for apparent misuse of data on the jail’s death rate.
On July 14, the P-G published an opinion piece by Harper that featured misleading statements about the jail’s death rates and criticized the media for ignoring the jail’s “success stories.” Although the jail was not responsible for the timing of the publication, the op-ed ran the same day that the jail reported its fourth death this year of an individual in their custody, Victor Joseph Zilinek, 39.
The P-G ran a rebuttal to the warden’s op-ed from Jail Oversight Board member and County Councilor Bethany Hallam that pointed out the warden’s likely misuse of death rate data, arguing he wasn’t comparing “apples to apples” (more on that later) and criticizing the county for using “tax dollars to shut down any attempt at investigation, transparency, and accountability.”
President of Allegheny County Prison Employees Independent Union Brian Englert also offered a rebuttal in the Post-Gazette, criticizing Harper’s management of the facility, writing: “The warden says there are ‘so many positive things’ happening. He’s right, but not like he thinks. I’m positive we are understaffed. I am positive he lost the support of the rank and file. I am positive that excessive overtime leads to deterioration of my officers’ mental health.”
This is not the first public demand for the warden’s termination. In March of this year, ACPEIU held a vote of no confidence in Harper’s leadership. At the time, county spokesperson Amie Downs told the media that Rich Fitzgerald’s administration has “full confidence” in Harper.
Apples to apples
What to know about this month’s fight over ACJ’s death rates
Harper’s op-ed and a recent tweet from the ACJ Twitter account both stated the jail’s 2021 death rate is 6.5 per 10,000 people, which would be half the national average from 2019 (the most recent year available). Actually, ACJ’s 2021 death rate is about twice the national average, at 33.7 per 10,000. So how did the jail get their numbers?
The most recent national data on jail deaths are from 2019, where, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, jails of comparable size to ACJ had a death rate of 17.9 per 10,000. BJS calculates this rate using the total number of jail deaths in a year over the jail’s average daily population.
In an email to City Paper, ACJ spokesperson Jesse Geleynse explained that the jail did their calculations using the total number of reported deaths at ACJ in 2021, six, over the total number of people admitted to the jail in 2021, which he says is 9,195. According to ACJ, the six people who died in their custody in 2021 are Martin Bucek, Robert Harper, Vinckley Harris, Justin Brady, Paul Allen, and Roger Millspaugh.
The rate the jail came up with, 6.5 per 10,000, cannot be compared to the BJS rate of 17.9 per 10,000, because they were not calculated the same way. BJS uses a jail’s daily population to calculate death rates, but ACJ used the number of people admitted to the jail in an entire year to calculate their death rate, which returns a lower rate than ACJ would have if they had followed the correct procedure.
In order to get a number that could be compared to the BJS rate, ACJ should have divided the number of 2021 deaths (6) by the average daily population of the jail in 2021, which was 1,780. Using the proper formula, ACJ’s 2021 death rate is 33.7 per 10,000.
Post-Gazette opinion editor Jeffery Gerritt later apologized for publishing the warden’s misleading statistics, but the editorial board wrote on July 21 that it doesn’t matter whether or not Harper knew the statistics he cited were wrong.
“Either way,” the editorial board writes, “it’s another example of his penchant for dismissing problems instead of fixing them. As long as Mr. Harper calls the shots, the jail’s troubles will fester and grow. Among them: high death rates, costly lawsuits, chronic staff shortages, improperly housing transgender inmates, substandard health care, and questionable practices on solitary confinement.”
Allegheny County Jail in the newsJAIL DEATH
On July 13, Bethany Hallam, county councilor and jail oversight board member, tweeted an email she and other members received about the death of a then-unnamed incarcerated individual inside the jail. The Allegheny County medical examiner later identified the deceased as 39-year-old Victor Joseph Zilinek. Zilinek is the fourth person to die in custody at ACJ this year.
As Pittsburgh City Paper reported on July 5, local public interest law firm Abolitionist Law Center filed 62 judicial misconduct complaints against county Common Pleas Judge Anthony Mariani, citing “impatient, undignified, and discourteous behavior.” The complaints referenced several remarks by Mariani that seemed to mock the jail conditions, including comments about inedible food, such as “slimy,” “green” bologna.
Martin Bucek, 55, was found dead in his ACJ cell on July 3, 2021. A new civil complaint filed by his ex-wife claims that he had a documented history of severe mental illness and suicide attempts and that the jail failed to provide him with proper medical care. Read Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism’s coverage of the complaint online.
On July 8, former Pittsburgh City Councilor Corey O’Connor was sworn in as Allegheny County Controller after being appointed to the post by County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. As county controller, state law requires O’Connor sits on the Jail Oversight Board. “We’re actually hiring somebody that has a criminal justice background and is working on rights for individuals” to focus on the Allegheny County Jail, Mr. O’Connor told the P-G.
A PINJ analysis of county inspections of the jail kitchen shows 162 health code violations since 2014. One former ACJ kitchen worker described rodents and pest infestations as a “daily problem” and recalled a layer of “black slime” covering the kitchen floor and pooling in a clogged drain and “raw sewage where we were preparing food.” The health department doesn’t have the power to shut down the jail kitchen, PINJ reports, so they rely on fines to address violations, which simply move money from one county department to another.
Stats: Who was in the jail this month?
(Source: Allegheny County Analytics unless otherwise specified)
- Average daily population of jail and alternative housing from July 1-28, 2022 is 1,641 individuals.
- This month, 90% of people incarcerated in ACJ were male and 10% were female. It’s unclear how many trans, nonbinary, and/or gender nonconforming people there are in the jail.
- 65% of people incarcerated at ACJ are Black and 34% are white. Allegheny County as a whole is 13% Black and 78% white.
- This month there were, on average, 24 people under 18 in the jail every day
- (Allegheny County reports 22 in June for 1% of the average daily population, Philadelphia county reports 9 for .2%)
- 661 people booked and 681 people released.
- On average, 24 individuals were booked each day in July 2022 and 24 were released each day
- For individuals committed to jail since the beginning of 2018, the average length of stay is 68 days
- In the last five years, 288 people spent more than two years incarcerated in ACJ
A bright spot: Medication-assisted treatment program growingThe number of incarcerated individuals receiving medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder at ACJ is growing. The uses of opioid antagonist medications such as buprenorphine and naltrexone are considered the gold standard in biomedical care for OUD. At ACJ, according to jail spokesperson Jesse Geleynse, people who come into the jail with an active prescription for MAT will continue to receive it. “This is verified by a urinalysis,” Geleynse tells City Paper.
Geleynse says jail officials will “continue to reassess for the possibility” of offering MAT to individuals who do not come to the jail with a prescription, but have not yet committed to a timeframe. During last month’s Jail Oversight Board Meeting, deputy health services administrator Renee Madden reported that in May 2022, 139 people at the jail received MAT. That’s up from 136 in April and 123 in March of this year.
UPDATE: This story headline has been changed at 12:10 p.m. on Aug. 4 to make it clear that this report is not affiliated with an existing Twitter account called Allegheny County Jail Watch at @alleghenyJOB, which defines itself as "a volunteer project dedicated to tracking human rights abuses at the Allegheny County Jail."