Allegheny County wants to cut its jail capacity, but advocates see deeper problems

A proposal request suggests that the jail could have between 500 and 1,000 beds, down from its current capacity of more than 2,000

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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)

Allegheny County is looking to decrease the capacity of its jail by more than half, according to a vendor request the county released earlier this month. 

In a Request for Proposals [RFP] entitled “Rethinking the Allegheny County Jail Facility,” the county seeks a consultant to lead an overhaul process and suggests that 500 to 1,000 beds would be “appropriate for Allegheny County’s population and crime rate,” down from the jail’s current capacity of more than 2,000. 

View the RFP in its entirety here

The request leaves it to consultants to propose, by Aug. 18, just how to accomplish that goal, suggesting that plans could include redesigning the current facility, increased use of other facilities or creating an entirely new facility. It also calls for a public input process that pays special attention to groups that have been disproportionately incarcerated at the facility, specifying the justice system’s impact on Black people and people of color. The RFP instructs consultants that any proposal should reduce the number of beds in the facility but cannot eliminate all of them.

The RFP is 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. 

Jail reform advocates are skeptical of the county’s move, though, and say a more comprehensive plan is needed to sustainably reduce the incarcerated population.

While the jail’s population has decreased since the county received the grant from more than 2,300 to around 1,700 today, the drop was fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic and a rush to depopulate the jail to limit viral spread in early 2020. After a sharp drop at the outset of the pandemic, the jail’s population has been stagnant, with virtually no change in the past year. 

The RFP calls for physical changes to the facility, eliminating the space needed to house the jail’s current number of incarcerated people. The county made no public announcement of the RFP after its release. Two County Council members and criminal justice advocates are perplexed as to how the county intends to proceed.

“I’m worried this will result in more facilities to incarcerate people and just shuffle people around,” said County Councilwoman Bethany Hallam, who sits on the Jail Oversight Board. “The jail oversight board has not been included in this process. I would be more supportive of this if I saw a feasible plan to reduce the incarcerated population.”

County spokesperson Amie Downs declined to comment on how the RFP was formulated or who was involved. The county’s webpage for the MacArthur grant says the executive branch is partnering with the jail, district attorney, the state court system, the public defender and the Department of Human Services. The district attorney’s office said it had no involvement with the RFP, and the other agencies did not respond to requests for comment.

Another county councilwoman who pushes for reform at the jail, Liv Bennett, said she likes the intent of the RFP but questions what impact it will have.

“I don’t know what impact this will have on decarceration,” said Bennett, who chairs the council’s public safety committee. “Are we going to shift people to electronic monitoring? Are we going to be morphing what incarceration looks like instead of decarceration?”

Hallam said she’s concerned there could be a proliferation of smaller facilities like two that the county already uses, where “[residents] wear their own clothes but still have their freedoms taken away.”

According to the RFP, the chosen consultant is expected to guide the process of overhauling the jail from the early stages of public input and design, consulting with the county and the community extensively. The RFP makes clear that the county would have final say on all decisions and would retain control over the jail after any overhaul.

The RFP cites New York City’s downsizing of its Rikers Island facility, which was coupled with the creation of four “borough-based jails.” 

Brad Korinski, chief legal counsel to Allegheny County Controller and Jail Oversight Board member Chelsa Wagner, said the population level of the county jail is largely driven by local law enforcement. Allegheny County, one of the most governmentally fragmented counties in the country, has more than 100 municipal police departments, which Korinski said “are not all on the same page about when to take someone down to the county jail.”

Bennett said significant policy changes must accompany physical changes at the jail.

“We have to stop incarcerating nonviolent offenders, people with mental health crises and people who need mental health services, people who need addiction treatment,” Bennett said. “It seems like they’re treating the symptom but not looking to remedy the deeper issues.”

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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