‘In way over their heads’: Allegheny Co. jail wasn’t prepared for COVID-19, employees say

The Allegheny County Jail (Pittsburgh Current Photo by Jacob Mysliwczyk)

By Charlie Deitch

PITTSBURGH — An employee suspended for wearing a mask; inmates crowded even closer together in a time of social distancing, and nearly 225 cells sit empty for reasons no one can discern.

Welcome to the Allegheny County Jail in the time of COVID-19, according to some of the people who work there.

The Pittsburgh Current recently talked to several employees of the county’s lockup and they paint a picture of poor planning and arbitrary enforcement of rules that they say are putting the public and the employees in harm’s way.

“Let’s put it this way,” said one employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, in order to be candid.“If the Allegheny County Jail were a baby, [Children and Youth Services] would come and take it away.”

The jail employees interviewed for this piece all spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing their jobs or other professional reprisals. The information for this story was gathered from multiple sources.

The Pittsburgh Current also sent 10 detailed questions to a county spokesperson. The County only answered with a general statement that had been sent to all area media.

“Rumors and misinformation can be destructive and can even cause harmful behaviors that increase personal and public health risk,” Allegheny County spokesperson Amie Downs said in that statement. “We have worked hard to ensure that the public has the most reliable information and balanced the need for transparency with private health considerations throughout this process.

“The rumors currently being spread about the jail, whether purposefully or unknowingly, are irresponsible and dangerous. Announcements related to what steps are being taken at the jail to address COVID-19 concerns have been made on an ongoing basis since mid-March and are also posted on the jail’s webpage,” Downs continued. “The Courts have even issued data and information regarding the release process to address misinformation being spread. We announced last week that an employee had tested positive for COVID-19 and shared information regarding that individual’s contact with colleagues and inmates. The safety of the staff and inmates at the facility is our main focus. We will continue to take every precaution necessary to mitigate the potential impact of the virus at our facility.”

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The view from inside

However, employees inside the facility on a daily basis dispute that the steps being taken are enough to stop the spread of the virus. A statement on the county jail’s website says in part, “With the exception of the temporary suspension of social and professional visits, inmates have had little change to their daily routines. Presently, there are no restrictions for out-of-cell time due to COVID-19 concerns.”

“That’s just not true,” said one employee. “The inmates know what’s going on and they’re scared. Some of them were wearing their clothes around their faces but we put a stop to it. And I know that social-distancing inside a jail is impossible, but what they’re doing just doesn’t make sense.”

According to several employees, inmates from across the jail have actually been consolidated in certain pods (cell blocks). Inmates who work in food service have also been consolidated into tighter quarters, instead of being even somewhat segregated.

As of last week, the county had released more than 700 inmates to lessen their risk to COVID-19 should an outbreak occur at the jail. Although no inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, employees say several have gone to quarantine. One jail employee tested positive, but that person did not directly supervise inmates.

There have also been indiscreptancies in the number of inmates released.

The removal of those individuals freed up roughly 225 cells. Those cells, employees say, are sitting empty while the inmates are being herded even closer together.

“It doesn’t make sense to me,” one employee told the Current. “I thought the idea of releasing people was to make it easier to manage the risk of an outbreak, but that space sits empty. I’ll even allow that they might have a valid reason for doing this. But nobody tells the employees anything. We have no idea what’s going on. We’re on a need-to-know basis. Can you imagine that; the people charged with dealing with the inmates and actually running this facility don’t need to know.”

A ‘need to know’ waiting room

The “need-to-know” waiting room is an area where a lot of people are now gathering.

Members of the County Jail Oversight Board, including Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner and Allegheny County Councilor Bethany Hallam, have been asking all along for information on how the jail is responding to COVID-19. They said they hoped to have those questions answered at last week at the board’s monthly meeting. But the session was canceled.

“In a crisis, public information is the bare minimum to be expected. While the County has decried ‘rumors’ circulating about virus cases and response, the best way to prevent this is by providing clear and timely facts about what’s happening on the ground,” Wagner said. “In the midst of quite possibly the most critical challenge County government and many of our residents will ever face, it is reckless to willfully withhold critical information the public needs.

“Official county actions now have a real impact on the ability of our community members to survive this pandemic, and it is well past time for them to be forthcoming with the public and show unequivocally that they are following their own directives,” Wagner continued.

One piece of information the public does get on a somewhat regular basis is the number of inmates released from the jail and where the county jail population currently stands now. There are differences in those numbers, according to county data.

In its most recent release, officials said the jail had a population of 2,224 inmates (not counting federal detainees), a decrease of 30 percent between March 1 and March 31. The number of federal detainees has decreased 32 percent, during that same time frame.

However using the county’s own numbers, the non-federal inmate count was 1,998 on March 1, meaning the decrease was 22.7 percent. Additionally, the number of released inmates doesn’t tell us how many people are going into the jail on a daily basis. Most law enforcement agencies have been instructed to not make arrests for minor crimes, but there is no evidence of how much the flow of people into the jail has slowed.

Employees tell the Current that if there is a new standard protocol for operating under COVID-19, they are not aware of it. One employee, whose job requires them to closely interact with inmates, said (as of last week), the way they interact with inmates hasn’t changed.

“I’m still required to go face-to-face with them,” the employee said. “We’re really close, there are no masks and we are always passing papers back-and-forth. Also, just in the course of close conversation, some people do spit a little when they talk. I don’t feel safe.”

A debate over masks

Masks are a current bone of contention at the jail. The jail does not currently require masks for employees. And inmates and up until this weekend, there was a specific policy against wearing them.

Last week, for example, a corrections officer was suspended for wearing a mask, according to employees with knowledge of the situation and verified by written documents about the incident reviewed by the Current.

According to employees, two corrections officers were tasked with searching cells. Before going into the room, they both put on masks and began their job.

Shortly after they began, an order came down that they were to immediately remove their masks. The officers refused and were pulled from duty to meet with supervisors, including Warden Orlando Harper and Chief Deputy Warden Laura Williams, who although not a medical doctor, told them that in order to contract coronavirus they had to be within six feet of a person for more than 10 minutes.

According to sources, employees have not been allowed to wear masks because management feared that then the inmates would start demanding them. When face-to-face with prison officials, both officers (one has a small child and the other takes care of an elderly family member) initially refused.

One of the officers was then suspended for two weeks and escorted from the building. That employee has been reportedly called back to work since the introduction of masks into the jail. The other, a newer hire still on probation, returned to work, fearing for their job, sources said.

However, in a turn of events on April 5, after Gov. Tom Wolf ordered that Pennsylvanians wear masks in public, N95 masks were offered to both inmates and staff.

The inmates’ mask had the metal nose strip removed. And an employee said no one, staff or prisoner, was given instructions on how to properly use the mask.

“A lot of guys didn’t know what to do with them, how to wear them,” an employee said. “And in the end, most people weren’t even wearing them.”

The county has said that masks were not required at the jail according to guidance from the Allegheny County Health Department. The masks this weekend were offered on a voluntary business and each employee who took one had to sign an acknowledgment that the mask would not be “fit-tested” because wearing them was not a mandate.

Employees said they worry about healthcare because Laura Williams, the Chief Deputy Warden for Healthcare Services, doesn’t have a medical background.

Her background is in substance use and mental health counseling. Employees say a number of nurses have walked off the job in the past month and they are being temporarily replaced by “agency nurses” who also work at other hospitals and nursing homes. Employees also said that over the weekend that during a radio-check, Williams checked in as the Assistant Director of Nursing on duty.

According to jail records, there are also currently 48 vacancies on the facility’s medical staff.

“She’s not a nurse,” one employee said. “We don’t have competent leadership here during normal situations. With this, they’re in way over their heads. They have no idea what they’re doing and they’re trying to keep that from the public and jail oversight board.”

Charlie Deitch is editor of the Pittsburgh Current, where this story first appeared.