Some members of the Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board are insisting on increased transparency and access to jail records. The issue, which was discussed at the board’s monthly meeting on Thursday, was prompted in part by PublicSource’s ongoing reporting on conditions at the jail.  

During the three-hour meeting:

  • Warden Orlando Harper agreed to provide the board access to the jail’s policies in full despite prior remarks otherwise.
  • Members of the board asked for more information about the jail’s use of the restraint chair, following a PublicSource investigation about the device and how it is used at the jail
  • An attorney for the county gave an update on whether the board will be provided access to records used in a PublicSource investigation of medical issues at the jail, which the board requested in its January meeting. 

Unredacted policies

Harper said he will now allow the oversight board to review the jail’s policies in full. In past meetings, the warden declined to provide the board access to unredacted versions of the policies. “If you come to the jail or we can meet you at a central location, we will bring the unredacted policies for your review,” Harper said during Thursday’s meeting. 

According to the Pennsylvania statute outlining the authority of county jail oversight boards, “The books, papers and records of the [county correctional facility], including, but not limited to, the papers and records of the warden and those relating to individual inmates, shall at all times be available for inspection by the board.”

At the board’s September meeting, member Bethany Hallam asked Harper if the board could see “unredacted policies, since it is our duty to provide oversight to the jail?” The warden replied: “No ma’am.”

Correctional experts PublicSource previously spoke with expressed disbelief at that stance. 

“That defeats the entire purpose of an oversight board, and I can’t imagine any court would say otherwise,” said Joel Dvoskin, an Arizona-based psychologist and correctional mental health expert.

Michele Deitch, an attorney and senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin who has extensively researched correctional oversight throughout the country, agreed. “The idea that the jail officials would just deny them access to the full policies when you’ve got a statute that clearly makes them entitled to that is appalling,” she said of the jail administration’s previous stance. “They cannot do their work as an oversight body. They are being handicapped by the warden.”

The jail’s medical records

During its January meeting, the board asked the jail for the medical records used in a PublicSource investigation about how short-staffing contributed to medical issues at the jail, such as missed medications, long wait times to see a psychiatrist and long wait times in the jail’s intake department.

On Thursday, attorney John Bacharach said the county is working to determine what records can be provided to the board. “We’ll provide the board with all the information that we can, let’s put it that way,” he said, estimating that the county should be able to provide the information to the board in 30 to 45 days.

Laura Williams, chief deputy warden of healthcare services, said the jail will be able to provide many of the records the board asked for, including the number of individuals waiting to see a psychiatrist or mental health specialist or who have requested to receive other medical care. 

Williams said, as of Thursday, there were 42 individuals waiting to see a psychiatrist — a significant reduction from the jail’s waitlist on Oct. 1 when it had about 200 individuals. 

Following a public comment about medications being given at inconsistent times at the jail, Harper said the jail is doing “everything in our power” to deliver medications on time. “The only thing that I want to say is this: everybody’s gotta remember that we have a pandemic going on worldwide. And we do have people that are quarantined,” Harper said. “And we do the best that we can to get the medications out in a timely fashion.”

The restraint chair

Board members also asked the warden about the jail’s use of the restraint chair. A PublicSource investigation published Thursday showed that the jail used the device 339 times in 2019 — more than any other county correctional facility in Pennsylvania. Bacharach advised the warden not to respond to questions because of pending lawsuits. President Judge Kim Clark, who is on the board, advised fellow board members to submit specific questions about the restraint chair in writing to Bacharach so that he could determine what information jail administration is able to provide given the ongoing legal matters. 

Allegheny County Controller and board member Chelsa Wagner asked for more information on use of the device. “The jail is always going to be subject to lawsuits… my interest here is to make sure that we are fulfilling our duties as a board in getting the data,” said Wagner,  who requested data on the extent to which the chair is used on individuals with mental health issues. “I think when we look at that PublicSource article, there are a lot of issues that raise what we as a board should know.” 

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

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Juliette Rihl

Juliette Rihl reports on criminal justice, public safety and mental health for PublicSource. Her 2020 series on how court debt impacts low-income Allegheny County residents prompted the county to join...