‘I just kind of hate being blindsided.’ Jail Board requests records provided to media, asks to be better informed

The board’s request follows a PublicSource investigation of medication errors and long wait times to see medical professionals at the Allegheny County Jail.

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Outside of the Allegheny County Jail building

Allegheny County Jail. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board members are learning about key issues at the jail through the media, according to comments from two members at their monthly meeting Thursday. 

Following a PublicSource investigation about missed medications and long wait times to receive medical care at the jail, board member Bethany Hallam requested during the meeting that the board regularly receive jail schedules and medical waitlists that PublicSource used in its investigation.

“I learned a lot of the things I’ve been wanting to learn about things happening at the jail through a journalist, and that has been happening a lot lately,” Hallam said. “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.”

Hallam requested the queues of the jail psychiatrist, mental health specialists and medical sick calls, which show how many inmates are waiting to be seen. She also requested the medical schedules, which indicate the number of employees scheduled in the intake department; the healthcare shift reports, which include the number of inmates who have been waiting in the intake department for almost 24 hours at the end of each shift; and reports of any health-related incidents. Most of those records were obtained by PublicSource through open records requests.  

The Jail Oversight Board is a nine-member body tasked with ensuring the jail is being managed properly, as well as ensuring the safety and health of inmates. The board has the power to investigate allegations of “inadequate conditions” at the jail and inspect the jail’s records, according to Pennsylvania law.

Allegheny County President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark, who is also a member of the board, agreed that the board needed to be kept better informed. “I think that point of Ms. Hallam is, we’d also like to know, too, and not find out about it in the news media.”

Jail Warden Orlando Harper said he would check with the law department about the possibility of providing the records. 

“What I’m going to do is, I’m going to consult with my law department to see if I have to provide that information, and once I get guidance from the law department, then I’ll let you guys know whether or not I can send those documents,” Harper said.

PublicSource’s investigation was not the only news story about the jail that took the board by surprise. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported on Jan. 4 that an inmate was hospitalized after falling from the second tier of the jail. His wife was reportedly not notified of the event or his condition because she was not listed as an emergency contact. Clark said she read about the incident when someone texted her a story link.

“I felt that the event was extraordinary, regardless of the outcome... and something that would likely lead to a newspaper article or be newsworthy, and that we should not just find out about it, sort of, that way,” Clark said. 

Harper promised to notify the board of any “extraordinary occurrences” in the future. He also assured the board that inmates’ family members will be notified of serious injuries or death in the future, even if they are not listed as the individual’s emergency contact. 

PublicSource has been investigating the jail’s high turnover of medical staff and how the shortage of staff harms inmates’ medical treatment.

Juliette Rihl is a reporter for PublicSource. She can be reached at juliette@publicsource.org or on Twitter @JulietteRihl.

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