CP Jail Watch: staffing issues, the ghost of audits past, and more

A monthly feature keeping tabs on the Allegheny County Jail and its leaders

click to enlarge CP Jail Watch: staffing issues, the ghost of audits past, and more
CP Illustration: Lucy Chen

Quote of the month:

“I’m not trying to put anyone in jeopardy, I’m just trying to push as much information out to the public as legally possible … I just don’t feel we’re adequately doing our jobs and getting that information out there.”
— Jail Oversight Board member Pat Catena pushes jail administration for transparency at the Aug. 24 JOB meeting

O’Connor announces plans for first ACJ staffing audit in over a decade

Amid widespread discussion over whether the public is sufficiently informed about jail conditions (more on that below), Controller and board member Corey O’Connor announced his office intends to conduct a staffing audit of the jail.

Various questioners have found it can be difficult to get a straight answer about how many people work at the Allegheny County Jail.

At the most recent Jail Oversight Board meeting, when asked about how many correctional officers work at the jail, chief deputy warden Jason Beasom didn’t answer. “I don’t have the exact number of the current full-time corrections officers,” he said. He also said he didn’t know how many correctional officer positions are currently vacant.

Similarly, when asked about how many medical and mental health staff members currently work at the jail, Dr. Ashley Brinkman, the jail’s health services administrator said, “I hadn’t prepared the exact numbers.”

Warden Orlando Harper indicated that he was uncomfortable discussing such details in public.

“Our office hasn’t done a staffing audit down there since ‘09, so we’re looking at starting that process back up,” said O’Connor during the JOB meeting.

O’Connor’s office declined to comment on the details of the planned audit or whether they would try to assess the extent to which the recommendations of the most recent audit had been implemented.

Although details of the audit are yet to be finalized, O’Connor tells Pittsburgh City Paper in an email that he hopes to assess alleged understaffing and use of forced overtime.

“We plan to assess whether staffing throughout the Jail is sufficient to meet the duties and obligations of the Jail to those held there, ably respond to medical or safety emergencies, and prevent overworking staff through forced overtime,” O’Connor writes, noting that these “are all concerns that have been expressed by those working within and monitoring the Jail in recent years.”

In particular, the jail correctional officer’s union, ACPEIU, continues to raise concerns about understaffing and resulting low employee morale.

“We appreciate [O’Connor’s] concern and willingness to thoroughly address the current work conditions,” writes union president Brian Englert in an email to City Paper, stressing the importance of evaluating both staffing plans and their execution. “It can only be a fair assessment if they analyze the schedule vs. the number of officers at work,” he says.

O’Connor says he’s hopeful the audit will help improve operations at the jail. “I believe that closely examining staffing in the Jail and how it impacts operations and presenting facts will be crucial to finally addressing these concerns,” he says.

What was in the last audit?

In 2009, the Allegheny County Jail paid more than $4 million in overtime, more than twice as much as it had budgeted. The jail administration, led at that time by warden Ramon Rustin, said this excess overtime was due to employees’ abuse of the Family Medical Leave Act and frequent external medical appointments for incarcerated people.

Then-County Controller Mark Patrick Flaherty’s office conducted an overtime audit considering most of 2009 and determined that the main reason for excessive overtime spending was understaffing. The overtime audit found that the jail did not have enough correctional officers in its employ “given the current operating structure of the Jail.”

The audit identified several factors influencing both lack of staff and absenteeism of existing staff, including an “adversarial labor-management relationship that is making it difficult to hold officers accountable for their performance,” scheduling that “often occurred without consideration of the Jail’s staffing needs,” and excessive use of forced overtime.

County spokespeople say the findings of the 2009 audit aren’t relevant to jail operations today.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s office says he has not reviewed the 2009 audit, arguing that “it was already outdated” by the time he came into office in 2012. Fitzgerald was County Council President at the time of the audit’s release.

Geleynse argues that today’s circumstances are “completely different” from those of 2009, especially considering the pandemic.

For one, the average daily population of the jail is much lower today than it was then. In 2009, the jail had an average daily population of about 2,800, compared to today’s roughly 1,600. In 2009, the jail employed 414 full-time and 50 part-time correctional officers.

As of Tuesday, Geleynse says the jail employs 359 full-time officers and 15 cadets are expected to graduate from training at the end of the week. The jail no longer employs part-time officers and also has 37 full-time sergeants and 13 full-time captains, Geleynse writes.

However, Englert, who started working at the jail in 2011, says the problems of understaffing and forced overtime identified by the audit have not been solved.

Englert says the past two years have seen a 15% decrease in correctional officers and that the jail often schedules too many sergeants for each shift.

“[Sergeants] are tripping over themselves…To sum it up, staffing conditions are worse,” he tells City Paper. “Morale is worse because of staffing.”

Although jail administration has been reticent to quantify their job vacancies, Englert says the jail is often short as many as 25 COs a shift, and forced overtime happens “every other day.”

Geleynse says the jail asks for volunteers before mandating overtime.

Highlights from Aug. 24 JOB meeting

After jail administrators declined to publicly answer several of his questions, oversight board member Pat Catena raised concerns that not enough information about jail operations and conditions is made public.

“It seems like a lot of information is kept from the public eye … a lot should be shared with the public. I’m not quite sure why we have so many executive sessions,” said Catena. “I understand public safety, but I also understand that the public has a right to know a lot of this information since their tax dollars are funding this jail.”

Another board member, Elliot Howsie, replied that he feels the board has an appropriate number of executive sessions.

“We haven’t had a lot of executive sessions,” Howsie responded, saying he guesses the group could “maybe come up with a plan for disseminating information that can be shared” after executive sessions.

Board member Stephen Pilarski, who attends JOB meetings on behalf of Fitzgerald, said “I think it’s a fine line we walk sometimes. I know some of the feelings are that sometimes we’re purposefully trying to hold things back, but I don’t think that’s anyone’s intent.”

Catena argued that other jails, such as Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County Jail, are more forthcoming with information. John Bacharach of the county law department suggested ACJ has unique “safety and security” concerns that might not be present in other jails. Catena pressed for a “commitment going forward” to release more information to the public.

Board member Terri Klein and Pat Catena asked about when the jail plans to start offering medication for opioid use disorder to people who need it but don’t have an active prescription when they enter the jail, also known as induction. Health services administrator Ashley Brinkman said that beginning induction is not a priority because they lack “bandwidth.”

The meeting also featured some discussion about whether jail intake screens people for autism. The warden said ACJ is “already far above everybody else” when it comes to accommodating autistic people.

Jail spokesperson Jesse Geleynse says the jail has a relationship with the Autism Connection of Pennsylvania and that, two years ago, the organization’s president, Lu Randall, trained jail employees on “how to recognize individuals with autism.”

“The jail currently uses broad screening questions at the intake department to check for a variety of mental health conditions, including autism,” Geleynse tells City Paper in an email. “The jail is continuing to work with Ms. Lu Randall, Judge William Ward, and Allegheny County Pretrial Services to implement a new screening process that focuses specifically on identifying those on the autism spectrum to complement the broad screening currently being performed. This process also requires the jail to fully integrate this new screening system into its current electronic health record system.”

Geleynse did not address CP’s questions about how the jail accommodates the needs of autistic people after intake.

Allegheny County Jail in the news

Ronald James Andrus, 78, died at ACJ earlier this month. Including Andrus, at least five incarcerated people have died at ACJ in 2022. TribLIVE reports Geleynse said Andrus had just returned from 10 days in the hospital and had been back at the jail for about an hour when “a medical emergency was declared.”

“As with all incidents at the facility, an internal review will be conducted and county police Internal Affairs will conduct an independent investigation,” Geleynse told TribLIVE.

Shortly after Andrus’ death, Fitzgerald
announced plans to contract with the National Commission on Correctional Health Care for a “historical review” of deaths at ACJ, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

In response to individual deaths in jails and prisons, the NCCHC recommends an administrative review, a clinical mortality review and, if the death is a suicide, a psychological autopsy. Its review of ACJ will take a wider perspective, hopefully offering “another independent and holistic review of incidents over a longer time period,” according to a county release. ACJ already works with NCCHC on suicide prevention.

reports, this month, the JOB took steps to begin recruiting individuals to apply for a newly created liaison position. The liaison position will be responsible for updating the JOB on jail conditions, among other duties.

reports that GED testing has resumed at ACJ after a two-year pandemic hiatus. Since April, the jail says five people have earned their GED. Allegheny Intermediate Unit, a regional public education agency, coordinates adult education at the jail.

A jail employee is suing the county for not providing her reasonable accommodations during her pregnancy, such as light duty, a room to pump breastmilk, and a refrigerated place to store it. She’s asking for at least $50,000, according to the Pennsylvania Record. Prison Legal News reported that the employee in question was also named in a 2021 lawsuit alleging brutal treatment of a disabled woman at the jail.

reports a former jail guard pleads guilty to possessing a sawed-off shotgun as part of a broader fall-out from his 2021 arrest for selling drugs at the jail.

CO union president Brian Englert
filed an unfair labor practice claim against the jail, claiming he has been retaliated against for union activity.

PublicSource reports that in July 2022, the county silently signed a contract with an architecture firm to proceed on a plan to “transform” ACJ to hold “drastically fewer people.” According to the contract, the planning process is expected to take almost 2,500 hours, cost more than $500,000, and include public engagement.

Democrat Erin McClelland has entered the race to replace Fitzgerald as the next County Executive. In an
interview with WESA’s Chris Potter, she referred to the jail as an example of a failing government system.

Stats: Who was in the jail this month?

From Aug. 1 to Aug. 31, 2022
(Source: Allegheny County Analytics unless otherwise specified)

  • Average daily population of jail and alternative housing: 1,643 individuals.
  • 89% of people incarcerated in ACJ are male and 11% are female. It’s unclear how many trans, nonbinary, and/or gender nonconforming people there are in the jail.
  • 64% of people incarcerated at ACJ are Black and 35% are white. Allegheny County as a whole is 13% Black and 78% white.
  • Children in the jail: 25 individuals under 18 are held in ACJ, making 2% of the ADP.
  • (Philadelphia county reports 9 children in their jail in July 2022, making .2% of their ADP)

UPDATE: This story was edited at 11:30 a.m. on Thu., Sept. 1 to correct the name of the jail health services administrator quoted in the piece.