The Allegheny County Jail’s incarcerated population is about two-thirds what it was before the pandemic, and as the jail has struggled to hire and retain staff, it left millions of dollars unspent from last year’s budget. Even so, the jail’s 2022 budget ballooned by 14% from last year’s, a hike of roughly $12 million. The county’s budget overall increased by only 5%.
The budget calls for a significant increase in staffing, while in reality, the jail is struggling to retain staff even up to previous levels and the correctional officers’ union leader regularly tweets about dangerous situations brought on by short staffing.
According to a summary provided by the county administration, the jail is budgeted for 510 correctional officers in 2022, a considerable increase over the 448 budgeted in 2021. Meanwhile, the jail employed 396 correction officers as of Jan. 7, 2022 — 12% below the 2021 budgeted staffing level and 22% below the 2022 budgeted level. (The correctional officers’ union president said in early March that the number was 370). According to public payroll data, 64 correctional officers left their jobs during 2021.
Starting pay for correctional officers is $22 per hour, and applicants don’t need a college degree.
County Council President Pat Catena said in an interview that he has been unable to get answers from the county administration about why the jail is struggling to hire and retain staff as well as about other problems at the jail.
“I need the basic information in order to propose a solution,” Catena said. “When you can’t get basic information off of this administration and this warden, that’s a real problem.”
During the Jail Oversight Board meeting March 2, Warden Orlando Harper refused to answer Catena’s question about the staffing issue, and Catena said he has not received any answers in the two weeks since.
Jail spokesperson Jesse Geleynse said in an email to PublicSource that the jail is trying to speed hiring by making more of the application process virtual instead of in-person, advertising on social media and traditional media and holding a virtual career fair. He said there have been recruit classes for correctional officers in recent months but did not specify the number of expected new officers.
As for the jail’s budget going up despite lower than expected spending and hiring in 2021, Geleynse said, “The budget is derived … using recommendations and projection of needs to ensure that our spending is fiscally responsible and meets the needs of the service we provide. Like any other county department, we continue to work to attract talented staff. It would not be prudent or responsible to budget otherwise.”
The jail’s medical staff is also impacted. There are significant vacancies for mental health specialists, medical assistants and licensed practical nurses. There is currently no medication room supervisor or director of mental health on the books.
Understaffing at the jail is not new. Last year, the jail had about $5.7 million left at the end of the year that had been earmarked for salaries. Overall, including supplies, services, benefits and other spending categories, the jail underspent its 2021 budget by $4.5 million — about 5%.
The correctional officers’ union, vocally led by officer Brian Englert, has ramped up public criticism of the county administration and the warden. Making a public comment at the March oversight board meeting, Englert put blame for the staffing shortage on the county administration, citing an end to retention and recruitment bonuses. Englert did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
At the meeting, he said the lack of personnel has prevented officers from receiving adequate training, including on “defensive tactics,” to comply with the new prohibition on solitary confinement and other measures.
“It doesn’t seem like there’s a plan in recruiting officers,” Englert said to the board. “I’ve asked them to take down the ‘Thank you’ sign in front of the building and replace it with a ‘Help wanted’ sign, no answer on that either.”
He reported that there were 13 shifts in February during which the jail’s intake division was missing either medical or mental health staff.
“My bosses refuse to communicate in email,” Englert said. “They only communicate in person … Without communicating with us, it’s going to be a nightmare. And that’s what it is.”
Geleynse said in an email that a “position being vacant does not mean that care is not given,” and that COVID-19 mitigation measures have made some services require less staffing.
The staffing shortage results in overtime for officers, which is often mandatory. The jail paid more than $9 million for overtime in 2021, and correctional officers averaged more than $18,000 each in overtime pay, according to a PublicSource analysis of county salary data. Englert said at the March 2 oversight board meeting that one officer was forced to work overtime on four consecutive days, prompting her to skip a shift due to exhaustion.
County leaders maintain that an increase in staffing is necessitated by county voters’ decision last May to ban solitary confinement, restraint chairs, leg shackles and pepper spray from the jail. County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said in his October 2021 budget address that the jail needed more personnel in order to safely operate without those tools.
Catena said he has received no specific explanation of why the referendum necessitates more officers in the jail.
Geleynse said in an email that with the new restrictions, additional staff are needed “to be involved in any transport or movement of inmates for safety reasons.”
Harper has repeatedly complained that the referendum hinders his staff and makes it harder to safely operate the jail. Bethany Hallam, a county councilor and member of the Jail Oversight Board, has been a leading voice alleging that the jail administration has thus far failed to obey the voter referendum, which took effect in December 2021.
Advocates allege that solitary confinement is still used on a large scale at the jail; the warden said incarcerated people were kept in their cells for long periods of time due to COVID-19 mitigation measures and due to short staffing, with not enough correctional officers to facilitate out-of-cell time.
Jail leaders have been quiet on what might be done to address the staffing crisis in the near term.
The budgeted surge in funding and requested staffing comes less than a year after the county released a request for proposals entitled “Rethinking the Allegheny County Jail Facility,” seeking a consultant to guide the process of overhauling the jail and cutting its capacity by more than half. The RFP is now listed as closed, and the county controller’s office said earlier this year it has not been awarded.
The jail population has declined in recent years. An average daily population of 1,638 people occupied the jail in 2022, down from more than 2,400 before the pandemic.
Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @chwolfson.
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