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County Executive Rich Fitzgerald is legally required to attend Jail Oversight Board Meetings, so why hasn’t he gone in nearly a decade?

By March 3, 2021 March 4th, 2021 No Comments

Rich Fitzgerald

By Brittany Hailer and Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current
brittany@pittsburghcurrent.com or charlie@pittsburghcurrent.com

Since becoming Allegheny County Chief Executive in 2012, Rich Fitzgerald has never attended a Jail Oversight Board meeting. Instead, he sends a proxy, or employee in his place. In recent years, this employee has been Barbara Parees, who used to attend in her role as Deputy County Manager. However, Ms. Parees retired as a county employee in December and still attends meetings as Fitzgerald’s designee. 

Pennsylvania statute expressly permits the President Judge and the President of County Council to assign designees to serve in their stead. However, the statute does not say the county executive can send a designee in this place. (See 61 Pa. C.S. § 1721, et seq.) 

Jaclyn Kurin, staff attorney at the Abolitionist Law Center said the statute is very clear on who can or cannot have a designee at the JOB meetings. 

 “That’s really important in terms of statutory interpretation, because it shows that had the legislators meant or authorized the county executive to assign a designee, then they would have said so in the text of the statute. There’s no ambiguity here. The intent of the legislators is clear and unambiguous.” 

Prior to becoming Allegheny County Executive in 2012, when Rich Fitzgerald was President of County Council, he was a regular attendee at meetings of the county’s Jail Oversight Board. According to Jail Oversight Board meeting minutes prior to 2012, Fitzgerald is listed in attendance, as well as then-Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato. 

Investigations of the jail, it’s policies and administration, etc. are the responsibility of the oversight board as per PA statute. Each year, under PA statute, the JOB is to conduct two inspections of the jail. The board meets on the first Thursday of every month. 

However, as county executive, Fitzgerald has not been present at discussions of investigations or grievances, does not respond to public comment, or offers public guidance to jail administrators. 

 A senior Allegheny County official, who asked their name be withheld for fear of reprisal, said they can only come to one conclusion. 

“For the county executive not to be involved in this process in any way, shape or form disrupts the ability to hold jail administration accountable as well as the Democratic process,” the official said. “He is legally required to be there, yet he refuses. What does that say to the public? It says, ‘I don’t care about these issues.’ It tells me that skipping these meetings is a deliberate, purposeful act.’”

Fitzgerald’s absence at oversight board meetings has been noted by some board members who feel that more could be accomplished and more information would be made available, if the county executive attended meetings regularly. Fitzgerald holds the unilateral authority to make changes to jail policies and procedures. 

The jail oversight board also has the power to hold the jail to account by requesting any documents from the Warden, including warden documents, documents of any incarcerated person housed at the jail and jail policies or procedures according to Part E of the PA statute. 

Since March 2020, Warden Harper has failed to provide unredacted ACJ policy, citing social distance concerns due to the pandemic. He will not send those documents to the JOB electronically, and instead insists members come down to the facility in order to review them. 

In the Jan. 2021 JOB meeting, Allegheny County Councilor-At-Large Bethany Hallam said that members of the board are learning about the jail through journalists, who are able to obtain documents board members do not have access to.

“I learned a lot of the things I’ve been wanting to learn about the things happening at the jail through a journalist. And that has been happening a lot lately and as much as I love local journalism and respect our local journalists, I just kind of hate being blindsided by them especially as a member of the jail oversight board. There are some documents that were used to write an article and since they were given to the journalist, I assume that it would be no harm in members of the jail oversight board having these documents,” Hallam said. 

President Judge for the 5th Judicial District of Pennsylvania (Allegheny County), and chair of the jail oversight board, Kim Berkeley Clark agreed with Hallam during the meeting, “I’m just saying in my opinion if this is something that was given at the news media’s request then there should not be any reason that the board can’t have these documents.” 

At last month’s JOB meeting, Harper suggested that the board members would have to come down to the jail in order to review unredacted documents. Berkley Clark said that she did not feel comfortable entering the facility during a pandemic. Board members discussed meeting at a public location for the board to review the documents. Hallam said while this hasn’t happened yet or been scheduled, the particulars of how such an examination will take place is in the works.

Fitzgerald could order those documents to be released as the county executive is who appoints the warden of the jail, and who the warden reports to. 

Hallam, an outspoken member of the oversight board, spars most months with Harper in an effort to get specific information about jail policies, procedures as well as the health and welfare of those incarcerated at the jail. Hallam said the results, however, are often the same — little information is shared and when it is, it usually comes in the form of heavily-redacted documents. Hallam is a board member and one of the two county’s at-large members, but has no power to compel Harper to turn over any information. 

“You can’t deny the fact that having [Fitzgerald] at the table who could unilaterally make decisions about the jail would be a huge asset,” Hallam said. “No other member of the board has such broad authority.

“Take universal testing for coronavirus. We have debated it in the past and gotten nowhere. Fitzgerald has the power to say, ‘do it’ and it gets done. If there are documents we want that aren’t being shared, He has the power to say, ‘turn them over’ and it would happen immediately. That’s why the law is written the way it is. The county executive is required by law to attend because he can order immediate changes that need made.”

The county official who spoke to the Current, said that there is a public-facing perception in the Fitzgerald and ACJ administrations that efforts to force Fitzgerald to show up at meetings and for Harper to provide information to the board is somehow an effort to discredit Harper. 

“I think what is lost in all of this is that the folks who ask questions on the JOB aren’t just doing it out of some personal animus toward the warden, but because they are attempting to follow the statute – which places pretty clear duties upon board members.”

Brad Korinski chief legal counsel to the officer of the Controller of Allegheny County said during the 1Hood Power Podcast on Feb. 15 that the oversight board is growing as an institution and providing a public forum for people in a new way. 

“But as to who has responsibility for the jail? The county executive does,” said Korinski, “Everything that we talk about with restraint chairs, with the way people aren’t provided health care in the jail….all of those things, it’s the county executive. The county executive could change the way the jail operates tomorrow with a phone call to the warden.”

Corey Durrett-King, currently housed at the ACJ, is just now recovering from a COVID-19 infection, said that he’s seen Harper trying his best at the facility. Durrett-King has sympathy for the warden and thinks the current state of the jail, and any hope for change, is ultimately up to Fitzgerald. 

“I’ve seen Harper doing his job with my own eyes. Nobody was prepared for this pandemic. Harper has staff he has to stay on constantly. A man in his position, I find hard, coming in and trying to keep things in order. I don’t fault him for everything, but, he does have the power and authority to change things. And his superior, Fitzgerald, who is supposed to have his back, is making Allegheny County thousands and millions of dollars by keeping this jail open. A big part of this [county’s] revenue is this jail. 

“Even if Harper wanted to do the right thing, with the position he’s in, he can’t. He has to do what Fitzgerald tells him. Fitzgerald needs to do something. He doesn’t give a damn that people are getting sick in here. They just want to make money off these probation detainers,” said Durrett-King. 

Fitzgerald hired Harper in 2011, to fill a slot vacated by former ACJ warden Ramon Rustin. Harper is a former deputy warden for operations in the Washington Department of Corrections. Since then, the ACJ has weathered lawsuit after lawsuit. 

In 2019, Allegheny County settled three lawsuits over medical care at the ACJ, totally over 1.3 million dollars. In the past year alone, Warden Harper, Fitzgerald,  county, and jail administrators have been subject to at least three lawsuits based on alleged inhumane practices at the jail.

  • In Dec. 2020, three formerly incarcerated women at the jail filed a federal lawsuit against the facility and several officers alleging they were “brutally assaulted” by Sgt. John Raible, who beat them, and improperly used a restraint chair and pepper spray on them.
  • In Sept 2020, after nearly two years of evidence-gathering, the Abolitionist Law Center filed a class-action lawsuit against county and jail officials for the alleged mistreatment of inmates with psychiatric disabilities.
  • In April 2020, The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pennsylvania, filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of three people awaiting trial at the ACJ, alleging that they were placed in conditions that increased the likelihood of contracting COVID-19.

Recently, advocates have voiced concerns with the rising COVID-19 case counts at the ACJ and how the spread within the facility could be affecting the community at-large. Neither the Allegheny County Health Department, the jail administration, or Allegheny Health Network, provided the rate of COVID-19 infection of the released population from the Allegheny County Jail. Nor did they provide data on how many community members may have been infected by a contact who either works at the ACJ or has been released from the facility.

It’s unclear if that information had been tracked.

Hallam says there is no doubt that Fitzgerald should be at meetings, but said it’s even more troubling that he does not publicly address ACJ news reports or lawsuits.  

“The person Fitzgerald sends to the meetings is a stand-in for the county executive, but they are not the board member, that’s still Fitzgerald’s responsibility,” Hallam said. “Isn’t he being regularly updated by that designee? Doesn’t he read the news?

“He has spent the past year ignoring the atrocities going on at the county jail and he has dodged questions from the media and his constituents. Every time he is asked a question about something going on at the jail, his response is no response.”

On that subject, the county failed to answer requests for comment for this story.

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