By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
Editor’s Note: Updates with comments from Jail Oversight Board Member Bethany Hallam.
Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner is calling for more public information about the county’s response to COVID-19 pandemic at the county jail.
Wagner, a member of the jail’s oversight board is speaking out after the board’s April meeting was canceled by Judge Kimberly Clark. The Current reported on the meeting cancelation on Friday in light of the news that a jail employee tested positive for COVID-19.
“While the COVID-19 pandemic has necessarily caused disruption in so many areas, including government, it is absolutely clear that where health and welfare are at stake we must continue our work with more vigilance and urgency than perhaps ever before. Canceling the April meeting of the Jail Oversight Board when inmates and employees are at their most vulnerable erodes the public’s trust and expectation that this body is providing an independent monitor of what is happening inside the Jail.
“Let’s be clear: Any outbreak or spread of the virus at the Jail doesn’t just affect those within its walls, but our entire community. I am terribly concerned that the Oversight Board is being kept on a “need to know” basis by the County administration, receiving more rhetoric and talking points than actual information.”
Wagner and other elected officials began calling for action to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the jail about two weeks ago. Since then, there has been action taken to reduce the population at the jail. According to information shared yesterday with the media, Allegheny County Spokesperson Amie Downs said that “622 inmates have been released from the facility. This is as a result of a collaboration between the Criminal Court, including Judges, the Public Defender’s Office, the District Attorney’s Office, the Allegheny County Jail, Court Administration, Pretrial Services and Adult Probation.” When the outbreak started, the jail population was reportedly around 2,400. As of Yesterday afternoon, Downs told the Current the population was 1,816.
However, one of Wagner’s complaints stressed last week during a telephone press call was that despite being on the board, the only information she received was through the media.
“Beyond my concerns about the Oversight Board as an institution, I remain terribly distressed for inmates and staff in the Jail, particularly since the Oversight Board has not been made aware of any plan to address a COVID outbreak, including the capacity of the Jail’s infirmary and the adequacy of its equipment; the social distancing and disinfection measures being taken; the inmate census by pod following recent inmate releases; how any pregnant inmates are being accommodated; what services the Jail is able to offer those dealing with addiction; and how the Jail is handling any of these issues without a Medical Director or Director of Nursing on staff,” Wagner wrote in her statement. “These are questions I would have asked at the upcoming board meeting had it occurred. I’m sure other members had further questions. With so many in government and every other sector carrying out important business remotely and electronically, there is no reason a meeting could not have been held without putting any board or staff member at any risk.
“It is disappointing that at a time when the need for public confidence is greatest, the County administration has decided that an entity charged by statute with ensuring health and safety is kept in the dark. Regardless, I and other Oversight Board members will continue to raise these issues and demand answers.”
Allegheny County Councilor Bethany Hallam also released a statement Wednesday about the meeting cancellation. Hallam said the cancellation is a violation of the ordinance that set up the board in the first place.
“The board’s administrative powers and duties shall include the operation and maintenance of the prison and all alternative housing facilities, the oversight of the health and safekeeping of inmates and […] shall ensure that the living conditions within the prison and alternative housing facilities are healthful and otherwise adequate. The board shall meet at least once each month and shall keep regular minutes of its proceedings which shall be open to public inspection.” – 61 PA Cons Stat §§ 1723, 1727 (2016)
“If there were a moment for which the original drafters of the statute had envisaged the need for strong oversight of local county correctional facilities, this would be it,” Hallam wrote. “Now is not a time to abandon our long-held belief that governmental institutions need regular accountability.
“We are in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, and worryingly, it looks more and more as though, our local jails will be the epicenters of infection and community spread. This is not an unavoidable outcome or inevitable fate. Rather, it will be the direct result of choices made by our elected officials and political and administrative leadership.”
Hallam said that while some progress has been made to reduce the jail population, the steps taken “are overall positive, but unfortunately display a clear misunderstanding of the seriousness of the crisis and rely far too much on only slightly modified business-as-usual. Social distancing is impossible in American jails. We need to dramatically and swiftly release most of the jail’s population—nearly double what we have already done and without any time to spare—as well as ensure the safety and security of those few who remain behind.
“That second charge is exactly the purview of the Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board.”
Hallam has joined other activists in requesting weekly updates on the ACJ as it relates to COVID-19. Hallam also said board members should receive daily updates on matters “including matters such as number of tests conducted, quarantine updates, plans for continued decarceration, and the like—for the duration of this crisis.