New survey results from the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work provide a bleak snapshot of conditions at the Allegheny County Jail last fall.
The survey, designed to help the Jail Oversight Board's Inmate Welfare Fund subcommittee determine best uses for revenue generated by commissary sales, had a response rate of 89%, which Director of Allegheny County Department of Human Services Erin Dalton called “impressive.” The incentive to participate in the survey was a bottle of Pepsi.
The report asked participants to describe jail conditions in areas including food, hygiene and healthcare, and also allocated space for open-ended comments.
Pittsburgh City Paper pulled five quotes that offer an overview of some of the key problems identified in the survey.
Human dignity1. “I get disrespect verbally, I have been assaulted physically, I have been tormented. I have been not able to cope or talk to someone who could help me, and I have felt abandoned.”
Complaints of mistreatment by staff recur throughout the report. Quotes from incarcerated individuals labelled ACJ’s correctional officers “very aggressive,” and “downright abusive.”
One quote claimed, “We are placed in the hole and left there even after we have finished our hole time,” referring to solitary confinement.
At the September oversight meeting, Harper said, “in this administration, if anybody treats incarcerated individuals other than how they should be treated, they are held accountable.”
2. “(In) processing sleep on 10x8 room with 18 grown men with vomit and feces everywhere on the floor where we sleep.”
The report includes many complaints related to hygiene and sanitation, some of which are due to the fact that the jail was on a 23/1 lockdown at the time these data were collected, meaning individuals were locked in their cells for at least 23 hours each day, which may complicate access to showers.
Harper reported at the last oversight meeting that the jail does more cleaning and sanitizing now than it did at the time of the survey.
According to the survey, just 6% of those surveyed reported that they sleep well in the jail, and 25% reported having enough clothes or covers to stay warm most of the time.
Health care3. “It's been 2 months since I submitted 2 sick call slips. Still no doctor visit. I'm a veteran with service-connected disabilities with a rating of 50% and I'm not getting the care I need.”
The survey brought complaints about the timeliness of healthcare service both for those with preexisting conditions and for health needs that emerged while incarcerated. Many of those surveyed also said that when they were able to see medical staff, they didn’t receive adequate care.
The report also includes multiple complaints that the only dental care available is tooth extraction, that the jail often fails to distribute necessary medication, such as insulin, in a timely or regular fashion, and that medication to help those with sleep disorders is often distributed in the afternoon instead of at night.
4. “There would be roaches in our food and rock-like materials in there as well and the jail expects us to eat such a thing.”A recent report by the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism highlighted 162 health code violations by the jail kitchen since 2014, playing into a larger narrative of poor food service.
The jail's contract with Summit Food Service expires at the end of the calendar year, and county officials say they have already begun work on an RFP for a new vendor. President of the correctional officers’ union Brian Englert continues to tweet reports that Summit regularly fails to staff the jail with food service workers as their contract requires.
5. "Commissary sells us dollar store items such as peanut butter/jelly for $5 and it’s generic. They also sell us individual items that are not for sell individually sell, such as Little Debbie cupcakes the box price is $3.09, we pay $4.99.”
The jail is also currently seeking a new commissary vendor and is expected to select a winning bid this month.
Dalton stressed at the September meeting that these results indicate a “snapshot” of jail conditions at the moment the survey was administered, which, he said, took place, “during the height of the pandemic.”
Harper stuck to a similar line.
“We have greatly improved all services since we are almost back to normal,” he said.
In response to questions from the board, the jail administration pointed to improvements to the distribution of menstrual products (the survey shows that 35% of menstruating respondents had hygiene products that were sufficient to meet their menstrual needs) and improved coordination with their exterminator.
Harper said he welcomes the additional information provided by the survey and expressed interest in continuing to conduct surveys of the jail population, perhaps annually.
Jail spokesperson Jesse Geleynse declined to answer City Paper’s questions about the study’s findings, noting instead the jail is working on a formal written response to the survey.