Opinion | Allegheny County Jail and local detainment centers continue to fail our communities


Image courtesy of Tanisha Long.

The Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board meeting at the County Courthouse on May 18.

By India Krug, Senior Staff Columnist

Three incarcerated people have died in Pittsburgh since May — though you might not know it even after attending recent jail oversight board meetings. As the number of incarcerated people who have died increases, so, it seems, do county and jail officials’ inaction. Community members, former jail staff and incarcerated individuals continue to say the same thing—it is traumatizing to be in the Allegheny County jail. 

It took Allegheny Councilperson At-Large Bethany Hallam, who sits on the jail oversight board as its only formerly incarcerated member, directly asking these facilities about the deaths for officials to address it. “James Washington recently died in the jail and again — hours into the meeting and yinz haven’t referenced it,” she told Allegheny County Jail administrators at last month’s meeting on May 18. 

James Washington, age 42, was found unresponsive in the jail’s intake unit the morning of Sunday, May 8. Staff administered several doses of Narcan, a medicine used to reverse overdoses. Washington died the next day at a nearby hospital. 

During public comment at the May meeting, representatives from Alliance for Police Accountability said that Washington lay unconscious on the floor for hours as others in his cell tried to get medical attention for him. His death calls into question the jail’s detox procedures and medical staffing. 

Last year, the National Commission on Correctional Health Care conducted a mortality review of the Allegheny County Jail and released its report in March 2023. Included in the issues marked “essential” was the problem of detox nurses not working in the evenings or on the weekends. 

“The facility has a ‘detox nurse’ working Monday through Friday (day shift only). This sporadically timed assessment is inadequate for the management of these patients. Our review identified multiple patients whose detoxification was poorly managed,” the NCCHC shared in the report. 

During public comment at the May meeting, Barbara Finch, a former healthcare worker at ACJ, said she received a letter from her former colleagues. The letter claims that the jail is severely understaffed and does not have enough mental health professionals, medical assistants or registered nurses. She said that hours go by and there’s no one to work in medical intake. 

During public comment at this month’s meeting, John Kenstowicz, a local social worker, shared a recent survey conducted with nearly one-hundred ACJ officers. When asked if each shift was staffed with enough correctional officers, 95% of survey respondents strongly disagreed. 

With a budget of nearly $90 million, it’s ridiculous that former and current staff need to beg ACJ to fill positions and provide comprehensive medical care to incarcerated individuals. According to a PublicSource article, the jail actually underspent its budget by $4.5 million in 2021. In the past three years, 19 people have died while in custody of the Allegheny County Jail. The most recent death is that of Tim Manino, 60, who died in the jail on May 25 after CPR attempts.  

Gerald Thomas, 26, collapsed and died in ACJ last year. After spending 10 months incarcerated, the charges against Thomas were dropped, but the jail kept him there for over two weeks without specifying a reason. His judge was Anthony Mariani — the subject of a report released by the Abolitionist Law Center containing 62 misconduct complaints. Thomas’ mother says the county will still not share the circumstances of his death or give her his medical records. 

In recent months, two men in federal custody have died while being held at Renewal, Inc. — a private detention facility in downtown Pittsburgh. William Spencer, 24, died after jumping from a window on April 19. 

When asked about Spencer’s death at the May meeting, Renewal CEO Doug Williams said “we don’t understand the circumstances of it, it happened at a moment’s notice” but there was an “incident that the probation officer ran from,” leaving Spencer in a locked room. He assured the board that Spencer’s next of kin was notified. 

During public comments on May 18, Kyna James of Alliance for Police Accountability claimed that, in actuality, Spencer’s mother had repeatedly tried to call Renewal throughout the day to get information about her son. She was eventually contacted by another incarcerated individual via Facebook messenger who explained the situation. 

Shortly after Spencer’s death, Damon Leroy Kayes, 54, died in the facility on May 9. No information about the cause of death has been shared. CEO Williams said that “in the chaos,” they failed to report Kayes’ death to ACJ or the jail oversight board. 

Communication and transparency continue to be a problem with ACJ and other local facilities. Councilperson Hallam says she routinely learns about deaths in the jail from incarcerated individuals — not staff.

At the May meeting, she told Warden Harper, “I got a call from someone in the jail that someone died in the jail — and it’s always so weird when I get those calls from not you, because you are obligated to report to the jail oversight board when there is a death in custody.” When Hallam asked Chief Deputy Warden Jason Beasom about confusing visitor and commissary policies, he replied, “It’s always been the way it is.” 

“So we should just keep on doing it,” Hallam said.

That’s the Allegheny County jail administration in a nutshell. How is that an appropriate answer to give at a meeting as community members plead for accountability, individuals suffer from inadequate medical attention and some even die in jail? 

Allegheny County Jail policies, from the previous bans on books, to the strip-searching of children, are needlessly harsh. Abolitionist Law Center’s Tanisha Long slammed administration during her public comment last month, saying, “The warden admits that he has a full body scanner that he could be using, but instead he wants to strip kids naked. Why? For the trauma.” 

India studies politics, philosophy, gender studies and social justice. She loves magical realism books, Joni Mitchell’s music and class consciousness. You can write to her at [email protected].