About 20 Pittsburghers gathered Downtown yesterday to speak out against reports of poor conditions at Allegheny County Jail and the death-in-custody of Anthony Talotta, the 17th person to die or experience a fatal medical emergency at the jail since April 2020.
“Our demands are simple. They're not difficult. They're humane, and they're meant to make conditions at the Allegheny County Jail survivable,” says Tanisha Long, community organizer for the Abolitionist Law Center.
Advocates called for the termination of Warden Orlando Harper, improvements to the jail’s emergency contact systems and procedures, as well as food that meets incarcerated individuals' dietary and religious needs.
The group was convened by the Alliance for Police Accountability, a coalition of more than 30 organizations pushing for police reform and racial justice.
Jail Oversight Board member Bethany Hallam shared details about Talotta’s death that she said she learned from the incarcerated individuals who witnessed the medical emergency that led to his death.
Talotta was reportedly autistic and had an intellectual disability. Hallam, also a county council member, says two incarcerated individuals told her they had been sitting in the common space trying to show Talotta how to use his jail-issued tablet when everyone was ordered to return to their cells for the night. Scared, confused, and experiencing chest pains, Hallam says Talotta was not able to stand up to return to his cell when he was ordered to do so.
“When he wouldn't move, when he was sitting there clutching his chest trying to come up with words to ask for help, the SWAT team in the jail was called,” Hallam says. She says the SWAT team, called CERT at the county jail, arrived with Dr. Wilson Bernales, and dragged Talotta to his cell. Wilson has since been suspended from his position at the jail after a news report from the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit News detailed eight states in which his medical license had been revoked or suspended.
Jail spokesperson Jesse Geleynse tells Pittsburgh City Paper that Hallam's account is incorrect, but declined to share more details on Talotta's death, citing privacy concerns.
"We take our role as caregivers and custodians very seriously, and both our healthcare and correctional staff work extremely hard every single day to ensure the health and safety of all those incarcerated," Geleynse says.
Geleynse also notes that the jail recently updated its procedures so that incarcerated individuals can change their emergency contact at any time through their tablet. At Thursday's oversight board meeting following the rally, Hallam and advocates repeatedly raised concerns that not everyone held at the jail has access to a tablet.
In a lengthy press release issued Tuesday in response to a new study of conditions at the jail, Harper acknowledged some of the concerns but also said the survey does not give an entirely accurate view of the jail because it was conducted last fall under heightened coronavirus restrictions. In response to criticisms of jail medical care, Harper noted the majority of care services are contracted out through the Allegheny Health Network.
"Medical emergencies have a response time of four minutes or less. Individuals are either treated on the housing unit and transferred to the medical unit or sent out to the hospital if more advanced treatment is required," Harper wrote in the release.
Hallam says once a correctional officer saw that Talotta’s medical emergency was ongoing, staff dragged Talotta out of his cell on his mattress and left him in the middle of the pod. He was reportedly released from county custody hours before his death at the hospital.
“By the next day, Mr. Talotta was dead,” Hallam says. “Every single death in Allegheny County Jail is preventable.”
This story was updated on Sat., Oct. 8 at 8:30 a.m. to include a statement from jail spokesperson Jesse Geleynse.