“Show up and do your job”: Hallam sues Fitzgerald for Jail Oversight Board absence

click to enlarge “Show up and do your job”: Hallam sues Fitzgerald for Jail Oversight Board absence
CP Photos: Jared Wickerham and Kaycee Orwig

Progressive Councilmember Bethany Hallam has filed a lawsuit alleging Rich Fitzgerald is shirking his duties as a member of the Jail Oversight board, effectively defanging the one body able to rein in the county’s fraught criminal justice system.

“Every single meeting, [Fitzgerald] is the one person who exists in this entire world who could snap his fingers and fix the jail tomorrow – stop people from dying tomorrow,” Hallam said during a press conference today announcing the suit. “And yet these illegal designees have sat there, rolling their eyes, texting on their phones, telling jokes back and forth while people are standing at the public comment podium, bawling their eyes out asking for justice.”

Allegheny County’s Jail Oversight Board has broad oversight of county jail operations and is specifically charged with ensuring the “health and safekeeping” of those held within its walls. As county executive, Fitzgerald is required to serve on the board, as are fellow defendants Controller Corey O’Connor and Sheriff Kevin Kraus.

Hallam – also a board member and former incarceree – says she has only seen Fitzgerald attend one monthly meeting during her four-year tenure, claiming every other time he has sent a designee in his place. The board’s statutes allow the council president and presiding common pleas judge to send designees, but they do not expressly grant that privilege to the executive.

A spokesperson for Rich Fitzgerald declined to comment.

O’Connor said he was surprised, as a sometimes critic of the jail administration, to be named on the suit alongside Fitzgerald and Kraus.

“I take my role very seriously on this board,” O’Connor tells Pittsburgh City Paper. “The only reason I’ve missed the last three meetings is because my wife has been on maternity leave, and that ends next week.”

O’Connor said he intends to resume his board duties in September and has instructed his designee to abstain from voting during the interim.

A spokesperson for Kraus declined to comment, stating, “neither Sheriff Kraus nor the office has been served with any legal process at this point.”

Hallam contends Fitzgerald’s absence is not a mere technicality but an active effort to “obstruct and impede the business of Board members like [the] Plaintiff, in questioning Jail administrators, obtaining records, and promulgating policies for the Jail.”

“The County Executive, by his dereliction, has fostered a culture, unique to any other Board in this Commonwealth, where the Board, literally, does not believe in the statute which created it and which invests it with broad powers, duties and obligations,” the complaint continues.

Hallam has frequently railed about the state of the county jail during her tenure on the board, decrying the number of deaths, the state of the food and healthcare, and the general living conditions.

The suit calls out “chronic staffing issues” at the jail, which it refers to as “a dysfunctional, dangerous and dispirited facility.”

Earlier this year, collaborative reporting by City Paper, Black Pittsburgh, and the Garrison project found inadequate staffing may have encouraged the overuse of solitary confinement and contributed to inadequate medical care.

The reporting also found deaths within the jail have escalated swiftly in recent years, putting it on a par with notorious facilities like Rikers Island Jail Complex when factoring in relative population.

Hallam says these issues are directly attributable to the jail’s management, which she says could be corrected if the oversight board took a more effective supervisory role.

“We need to do everything in our power to stop these deaths,” Hallam said. “And I am sure that if there were different folks who were leading the jail who were in charge of what's happening in the jail that fewer people would have died over these past few years than the 20 deaths since April 2020.”

Jail spokesperson Jesse Geleynse disputes the death count quoted by Hallam, noting the jail does not count as deaths in custody those where the deceased was released to hospital immediately following a medical event inside the facility.

"There have been 15 in-custody deaths since April 2020, not 20 as she claims," Geleynse wrote in an email.

A report conducted by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care —
which includes medical release deaths among its mortality reports — listed 17 deaths at the jail between April 2020 and September 2022. More deaths have since been reported.

The suit also claims some members of the oversight board are denied access to documents and information necessary for fulfilling their duties.

“Even the most cursory document requests to which the Board is entitled are repeatedly thwarted by Jail administration,” the suit claims.

The suit, if successful, will compel Fitzgerald and other members to attend every board meeting moving forward and could yield a legal opinion denying the right to send a designee.

“We’re going to win,” Hallam said. “The law is very, very clear.”

The county law department did not immediately return a call requesting comment for this story.

Brad Korinski, an attorney in Common Pleas Court Chelsa Wagner’s office who drafted the suit, said despite it going by the archaic Latinate term “writ of mandamus,” the objective is plain:

‘“The Pittsburgh translation of mandamus is ‘show up and do your job.’”

Update: This story has been updated to include comments from a jail spokesperson.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that only the council president and president judge are permitted to appoint designees. A previous version of the story stated both common pleas judges serving on the board could send designees.