Outside of the Allegheny County Jail building
Allegheny County Jail. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Allegheny County is moving ahead with a year-old initiative to hire a consultant to plan what could be drastic alterations to the county jail, potentially including decreasing its capacity by half or more. 

Almost a year after releasing a request for proposals, the county has chosen a firm and is now negotiating a contract, according to the county controller’s office. The chosen firm is CDI Architects, a subsidiary of TranSystems. 

The county has done business with CDI Architects multiple times in recent years, and its former parent company, L.R. Kimball, designed the jail in the 1990s. Both entities were bought by TranSystems in 2021.

A spokesperson for TranSystems declined to comment and directed PublicSource to “our client, the county, for this request.” 

Amie Downs, a spokesperson for County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, said the county does not discuss bid selection processes before they are complete, but that “this is the next step in the effort we’ve undertaken to reduce the jail population in Allegheny County and implement reforms in the justice system.”

When Jail Oversight Board member Bethany Hallam asked Warden Orlando Harper about the project during a July 7 public meeting, Harper said he could not comment and added, “I have to do a little more research in order to provide information.”

The call for bids said the county seeks an overhaul for the jail and suggests that 500 to 1,000 beds would be “appropriate for Allegheny County’s population and crime rate.” The jail’s current capacity is more than 2,000. Its average daily population this year is 1,670, down from an average of 1,822 over the last three years.

The request left it to consultants to propose just how to accomplish the overhaul, suggesting that plans could include redesigning the current facility, increased use of other facilities or creating an entirely new facility.

The proposal period opened July 1, 2021, and closed Sept. 1, 2021. The county made no public announcement about the initiative or the ensuing bid process. 

Read the complete request for proposals here.

Bret Grote, the legal director of the Abolition Law Center, said the jail’s population can and should be reduced, but the county’s request for proposals does not adequately explain how it will make that a reality.

“I have a lot of questions about how the county and the court system would be engaged, and the police agencies,” Grote said. “If you just changed the design of the building, that’s not going to change the number of people sent there every day.”

TranSystems, a Kansas City, Missouri-based company with national reach, advertises expertise in architecture, aviation, infrastructure, construction and program management and other areas. TranSystems acquired CDI Architects in 2021 when it acquired L.R. Kimball, an architectural firm whose Downtown Pittsburgh office address is now listed on TranSystem’s website. 

The county has signed several contracts with CDI for engineering and architectural services in recent years, paying $1.1 million when it was under the L.R. Kimball banner and more than $725,000 under TranSystems.

With the jail-related contract under negotiation and the proposal still under wraps, it’s unknown how much a potential contract could cost the county or what the scope of work could be. 

Six other firms submitted proposals for the project, according to the controller’s office. They are: AE Works, GCL Companies, HDR Architects, Justice Management, POH Architects and STV Architects. The proposals are not publicly available until a contract is formally awarded.

The request for proposals was tied to the Safety and Justice Challenge grant the county received from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 2018. The county website says the project’s goals are to reduce the jail’s population and reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system. 

In an application to renew its MacArthur grant, the county wrote that it will “complete a community-informed process to develop a blueprint and capital budget request for a redesign of the jail aimed at shrinking its footprint.”

The same application lists several proposed actions to reduce the population of the jail, including:

  • a study of racial disparity in bail decision-making 
  • expedited court processing 
  • reducing probation detention  
  • preventing incarceration of people in mental health or substance abuse crises.

The jail has been the subject of intense scrutiny over the last year, with a controversial training contract, chronic staffing issues and a string of deaths among the incarcerated population raising advocates’ fury and putting the jail’s administration on the defensive. 

News of this request for proposals was met with skepticism from jail reform advocates last summer. Hallam, also a county councilwoman, said then that she feared the project would result in more, smaller facilities. Another council member, Liv Bennett, said she wondered if the county would be “morphing what incarceration looks like instead of decarceration.”

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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Charlie Wolfson is an enterprise reporter for PublicSource, focusing on local government accountability in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. He is also a Report for America corps member. Charlie aims to...