Pitt survey reveals poor conditions at Allegheny County Jail


TPN File Photo

The front entrance of Allegheny County Jail in Downtown.

By Donata Massimiani, Senior Staff Writer

In a survey conducted by Pitt’s School of Social Work assessing conditions at the Allegheny County Jail, one respondent claimed it took over a year for the jail to get their “insulin right,” and added that sometimes they do not receive it at all. 

The ACJ sparked controversy throughout the pandemic for its reported unconventional lockdown tactics, poor living conditions and inadequate medical care. The survey increased existing tensions upon its release in September, by revealing high rates of dissatisfaction among incarcerated individuals with food, medical care, comfort and more.

The Inmate Welfare Fund subcommittee of the Jail Oversight Board requested the survey in October 2020 to better understand how it could effectively utilize proceeds generated from commissary sales. A group of researchers from the School of Social Work collected data from late summer to fall 2021. During this time the jail operated under 23-and-one lockdown — a model utilized during the COVID-19 pandemic that required incarcerated individuals to stay in their cells for 23 hours a day — and in-person visitation was suspended. The survey received an 89% response rate and included closed-ended quantitative questions and open-ended qualitative questions. 

Elizabeth Farmer, the dean of the School of Social Work who led the team conducting the survey, said the county asked the school of social work to conduct this survey on an annual basis. She said her team is currently working on finalizing their proposal to do so. 

The Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism reported that the continued use of the 23-and-one model in fall 2021 made the ACJ an “outlier” compared to similar institutions across the state. A public policy expert told the PINJ that she didn’t know of another county jail within the United States where incarcerated individuals faced 23 hours of lockdown daily. 

Bethany Hallam, a member of the JOB, said the complaints revealed in the survey did not surprise her, but the high rates of dissatisfaction did. She said she visits the ACJ regularly to speak with incarcerated individuals where they discuss these issues “over and over again.” 

“I knew that these things were happening, but I didn’t realize until the survey how large of a scale they were happening on,” Hallam, a member of the Allegheny County Council, said. 

According to the survey, 66% of the 1,418 individuals who responded reported dissatisfaction with jail medical care. Open-ended responses regarding medical care, all “very consistent” and “descriptive,” centered on several thematic issues. The themes included the length of time they waited to be seen for medical needs, not receiving proper care or treatment for medical issues, concerns about dental care and issues with medication.

“My social worker emailed the jail [4 months ago] to have me seen by mental health. I still haven’t been seen. I am bipolar and unmedicated,” one respondent said. 

After the PINJ released a report that revealed ACJ doctor Wilson Bernales, one of two doctors employed at the jail, had his medical license suspended, revoked or denied in at least 8 different states, Allegheny Health Network placed Bernales on suspension pending further assessment of his qualifications and state license.

Hallam said an interim replacement doctor has not been hired upon Bernales’ suspension and one doctor is currently responsible for “nearly 1500” incarcerated persons at the ACJ. 

Brittany Hailer, the director of the PINJ, said she’s watched the JOB meetings throughout the pandemic and noticed that the same issues — medical care, staffing, food and deaths in custody — continue to present themselves. She also said the public frequently expresses that they feel as if their concerns are not heard by jail officials. 

“There’s this recurring theme of asking questions and not getting answers,” Hailer said. Allegheny County’s Bureau of Corrections currently has 37 vacant corrections positions listed, 22 relating to health care. Hallam said the staffing issues faced by the ACJ are in-part due to poor upper-level management at the jail. She said she’s done many exit interviews with former ACJ employees across different departments — some leaving after a very long tenure at the jail and some who never wanted to leave and felt satisfied with their pay. The former employees revealed they could not “morally stay” working at a facility that is run by people who “do not know how to provide basic needs for human beings.”

“Before we go into a full-fledged hiring frenzy, we need to make sure that the people that these new hires are going to be working under are acting in the best interest of the people who are incarcerated at the jail,” Hallam said. 

77% of respondents of the survey indicated that they always (57.4%) or frequently (19.6%) had to purchase “necessary” hygiene items from the commissary. 71% of respondents indicated that they found the jail temperature somewhat (33.8%) or very uncomfortable (37.4%), and only 25% of respondents indicated that they had sufficient clothes or covers to always (13.3%) or frequently (11.9%) stay warm. 

A Health Department report from June 14 revealed multiple pest management violations at the ACJ. According to the report, health inspectors found two recently deceased juvenile mice on glue traps in the dry-food storage room, fruit flies in the dry-food storage room and mouse droppings in alcoves, corners and along the wall perimeter beneath shelves in the dry-food storage room. 

72% of survey respondents indicated that they were “very dissatisfied” with food in the jail. For respondents who have special diets for medical conditions, 76% reported that the food they were served did not meet their dietary requirements. 88% of respondents indicated that they frequently (53%) or sometimes (35%) went to bed hungry, and 75% of respondents indicated that they “frequently” supplemented their provided food with food from the commissary because they were unhappy with the provided food. 

“Plenty of times where roaches were on the food cart. Many times, I found pebbles on the trays mixed into the food,” one respondent said.

Hallam said during her visits to the ACJ, she’s seen food she would not “feed to a wild animal,” and that jail employees are served different meals than incarcerated individuals. She also said the jail is not supposed to mark up commissary items more than 10%, but during an audit the JOB found items marked up 30%, 40% and even 50%. 

“The county isn’t even following the laws in the terms of contracts that are already in place,” Hallam said. “How can we entrust them to take it a step further and make sure the people in the jail are taken care of?”