Gerald Thomas died in the county jail a year ago. Organizers are collecting money for his headstone.

click to enlarge Gerald Thomas died in the county jail a year ago. Organizers are collecting money for his headstone.
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Gerald Thomas

Twenty-six-year-old Gerald Thomas died of a pulmonary embolism after collapsing in the Allegheny County Jail on March 6, 2022.

A year later, his mother says she has not received information from Allegheny County officials regarding the circumstances of his death or seen his medical records, and she has been unable to afford a headstone for Thomas’s gravesite due to the financial burden caused by a loved one’s unexpected death. A coalition of local organizers has started a fundraiser to help Thomas’s family pay for his burial.

“We’re coming up on a year anniversary of my son’s death. I still have not received any type of answers surrounding my son’s death,” Juana Saunders, Thomas’s mother, said at last week’s Jail Oversight Board meeting.

Saunders tells Pittsburgh City Paper she has learned from incarcerated individuals who say they witnessed Thomas’s last days that he had been asking for medical attention for a week prior to his death and did not receive it.

Two recent surveys of conditions at Allegheny County Jail show that incarcerated people say they routinely experience long wait times for healthcare, both physical and mental.

Warden Orlando Harper’s most recent report on jail staffing shows 88 vacancies out of 162 healthcare staff positions at the jail for a 54% vacancy rate.

Saunders says she believes this lack of medical staff contributed to her son’s death.

“We don’t even know if my son’s life would have been spared or not, but what we do know is that he died inside the Allegheny County Jail,” she told the Jail Oversight Board

Regarding Thomas’s death, jail spokesperson Jesse Geleynse previously told City Paper, "There is medical staff present in the facility at all times, and medical care is provided under the direction of AHN [Allegheny Health Network] through a contract with the organization."

Saunders tells City Paper that Thomas’s death has been a “huge financial burden,” especially because it was sudden. “Not only that, but Gerald has children. He has four children out here … financially, it’s very hard,” she says, “We would like to put him to rest.”

Tanisha Long, community organizer at the Abolitionist Law Center, who started the fundraiser, calls on Pittsburgh residents to pitch in to help cover the costs of Thomas’s burial.

“No one expects their child to pass away while unjustly incarcerated,” she tells City Paper. “We must support and uplift the family of Gerald Thomas as they process their grief and seek closure. The least we can do is help make sure Gerald has a proper resting place.”