How powerful is the Jail Oversight Board?

The warden raised the possibility of disregarding the board's decision on training this week.

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The front facade of Allegheny County Jail. The building is constructed of long, rectangular glass panels in the center and red brick on the left side.

The Allegheny County Jail. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

A dispute raged this month between the Allegheny County Jail administration and the Jail Oversight Board as the board sought information on and eventually banned a company the jail had contracted to train correctional officers.

After the board voted, 4-3-1, on Monday to ban the training company C-SAU and its operator Joseph Garcia from working in the jail, Warden Orlando Harper blasted the decision. “I do not intend to follow it,” Harper said on Tuesday as he described the motion as banning him from conducting “literally any training.” Ambiguous language in the order appears to have led the warden to interpret the directive as far more broad than the board intended.

The dispute and the uncertainty of what might happen next brings the board and its authority to the forefront. If you’re wondering what the board is, how it works and what power it has, read below:

Who sits on the board?

The board is commissioned and empowered by state law. Its current form dates to 2009, when an amendment to state statutes converted the former Prison Boards (which dated to a 1980 state law) into the current Jail Oversight Boards [JOB] in certain counties. 

State law calls for the board to include nine people: 

  • the county executive (currently Rich Fitzgerald) 
  • two judges of the Court of Common Pleas, including the president judge or a judge designated by the president judge (currently President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark and Judge Beth Lazzara)
  • The county sheriff (currently William Mullen)
  • The county controller (currently Chelsa Wagner)
  • The president of County Council or their designee (currently Councilwoman Bethany Hallam, designated by Council President Pat Catena)
  • Three citizen members (Currently Terri Klein, Gayle Moss and Abass Kamara)

Some of the elected officials opt to send a proxy to JOB meetings in their stead. At Monday’s contentious meeting, Fitzgerald sent Deputy County Manager Stephen Pilarski and Mullen sent Sheriff’s Deputy Kevin Kraus. Early on in the meeting, Hallam asked Clark, who chairs the board, to bar the two from voting, saying that the law makes no mention of proxy voting. Clark allowed them to vote, citing precedent — the law doesn’t mention voting procedure at all.

The citizen members can’t be employees of the county or the state, should be “representatives of the broad segments of the county population” and are appointed by the county executive and approved by the council. 

What does the board do?

State law gives the board broad responsibility over the jail, as well as investigative and observational duties.

“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 the confirmation of the chief executive's selection of a warden,” the law reads.

The law specifically charges the JOB with:

  • Ensuring that living conditions in the facility are “healthful and otherwise adequate”
  • Conducting unannounced inspections of the jail at least twice annually, including interviews with inmates without the presence of the warden. The board is to produce a written report for each inspection and make them public. (No inspections took place during the pandemic until this month, Hallam said, and written reports do not appear to be available online.)
  • Ensuring the prison is following all relevant local, state and federal laws
  • Investigating any allegations of inadequate conditions. The law says that all books, papers and records of the prison, the warden and inmates are to be available to the board at all times. (The warden blocked access to unredacted jail policies as recently as this year.)

The law grants the board the power to “promulgate such rules, regulations and forms it deems necessary for the proper administration of the board and for the operation of the prison and alternative housing facilities.” 

So what happened this week?

The JOB passed a motion on Monday, forbidding the jail from doing business with C-SAU and its lead trainer, who came under scrutiny for his mysterious work history and using militaristic methods in the past. 

Tuesday, the warden announced his intention to disobey the board’s directive — though he interpreted it as banning all training, and said he would in fact pause work with C-SAU after the board’s decision. When PublicSource asked the county executive’s office for his stance on the warden’s statement, spokesperson Amie Downs said Fitzgerald relies on the experts that run his departments and does not like to micromanage them.

“They are continuing to rely on the Warden and his 33+ years of correctional experience, as well as his track record of making improvements at the jail that have resulted in ACA certification, a reduction in the number of suicides at the facility, and continued efforts to reduce the population at the facility,” Downs wrote in an email. 

“Warden Harper continues to have the administration’s full support.”

Does the warden have the authority to overrule a JOB directive? Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, a managing attorney at the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, said he does not.

“The statute is very clear about what powers the board does have, and it says things in very clear, unconditional language,” Morgan-Kurtz said. “While the statute talks a little bit about the warden’s duties, it doesn’t say anywhere that the warden can overrule or ignore the oversight board. If the people who drafted the statute had any intention of the warden having that type of power, it would be included in the statute.”

It’s not entirely clear what would happen if the jail follows through on disobeying the board. Brad Korinski, chief counsel to board member and County Controller Chelsa Wagner, suggested that the matter could end up in court. Board member and County Councilor Hallam tweeted an image Tuesday with the text, “See you in court.”

“The warden acknowledged the JOB’s power when he stopped the training conducted by Garcia,” Korinski wrote in an email to Publicsource. 

President Judge Clark declined to comment and Judge Lazzara could not immediately be reached for comment.

Morgan-Kurtz said her group has never seen a dispute like this. “In any counties I’ve interacted with, there’s never been a question. The Jail Oversight Board does or says something, and the warden follows it.”

Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource's local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at charlie@publicsource.org and on Twitter @chwolfson.

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