Citations, fines, and terminated contracts: a look at the Allegheny Co. Jail health code violations
The jail has been cited by the Allegheny County Health Department 162 times since 2014
Allegheny County Jail (Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism photo).
By Jake Dabkowski
Since 2014, The Allegheny County Jail’s residential kitchen has received 162 health code violations from the Allegheny County Health Department. The jail has been cited for its pest management, plumbing, cleaning and sanitation, and handwashing facilities. In 2021, the facility was cited 42 times, the most citations the jail has received in a single calendar year. So far in 2022, the jail has been cited 21 times.
Of the 162 health code citations, pest management was the most cited with 20 violations.
Despite the high number of violations, the county health department is unable to close the jail kitchen: incarcerated individuals at the jail have a guaranteed right to food and the jail is responsible for feeding more than 1,000 incarcerated persons daily. When the jail violates health standards, the only recourse for the department is to fine the jail and require that it takes steps to remediate the issues. Generally, that work is done by outside contractors, such as pest management companies, paid for by the county.
Bryan Salaj knows what it is like to work in the Allegheny County Jail kitchen. In the summer of 2020, he was incarcerated in the Allegheny County Jail. He’d served time before, but his experience during the COVID-19 pandemic was different: after the kitchen crew caught COVID, Salaj and his podmates were put to work in what he describes as “terrible conditions.”
“There’s rats, there’s roaches, there’s mice,” Salaj said. “Mice s— in the cake batter mixing.”
Salaj emphasized that pest issues are an everyday occurrence.
“Absolutely any given time you could go in there and you’re going to find either rodent feces or any type of evidence of them,” Salaj said. “Every day we would be in the back by the little ovens and there’s roaches running up the walls.”
He recalled seeing “holes eaten in the bottom of the [food] bags” and rats and mice. When he tried to tell a supervisor he was instructed to cook the contaminated food, he said.
In February, the jail was cited for live rodents, live cockroaches and rodent droppings. The report noted live rodents in food storage areas and live cockroaches in both the main kitchen area and a utility room. Rodent droppings were found inside a container of powdered cheese which was meant to be used to serve the incarcerated population; rodent droppings were also found in numerous other areas of the kitchen, warehouse, utility rooms and a supply room.
That February report further indicated that the pest control measures in place were inadequate, and noted, “bait stations from previous pest control services have not been serviced in some time.” The report characterized this situation as “high risk.”
According to the county’s consumer alerts and closures database, the health department has closed restaurants for similar violations.
For example, one Pittsburgh restaurant was closed on July 11 for a “fly infestation” as well as “inadequate facilities to maintain food temperatures” and “general unsanitary conditions.” Since 2014, the jail kitchen has been cited for fly problems three times, food temperature problems 14 times, and cleaning and sanitation 18 times.
Another Pittsburgh area restaurant was closed June 24, 2021 for “repeated violations related to pest control” as well as “live mice being observed.”
The Allegheny County Jail kitchen has been cited more times for pest control issues than any other violation. However, since the jail kitchen is classified by the health department as “adult food services,” the kitchen in the jail follows different guidelines than restaurants.
The Allegheny Health Department did not respond to a request for comment.
According to Brad Korinski, former chief legal counsel to the Allegheny County Controller, a typical commercial kitchen would be shut down by the health department for this many citations. Korinski explained that because the inmates have a guaranteed right to food, closing the jail kitchen is simply not an option.
“What the health department would rely upon, since they don’t have a shutdown order, would be their ability to issue fines,” Korinski said.
Ultimately, the money to pay the fines is coming from one county agency to another, Korinski said.
“[Issuing fines] kind of comes up short when we’re talking about a place like the jail that is run by, essentially, the same political entity that runs the health department,” he said.
The health department fined the jail $9,460 between 2014 and 2018, but the fines stopped in March 2018, according to inspection reports.
However, fines aren’t the only thing costing the county.
Allegheny County paid pest control companies $172,309.15 over a three year period between 2018 and 2021, according to contracts between the county and third-party pest control companies obtained by the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Of that money, $89,913.15 was paid to Complete Pest Solutions and $82,396.00 was paid to Terminix Pest Control. The contracts with these companies expired in June 2021 and the county switched to a new company, Fort Pitt Exterminators, according to jail spokesperson Jesse Geleynse.
There have been 20 citations for pest management violations since 2014 and the health department noted dead rodents on three of those occasions and rodent droppings 16 times. Mice and rodents are not the only pests in the kitchen, according to the health department. Roaches are mentioned in six reports. Roaches were mentioned twice in 2019, once in 2020, and three times in 2022.
While pest management is the most frequent violation, it is not the only recurrent violation. Since 2014, the following five issues have been the most commonly cited:
- 18 citations for cleaning and sanitation;
- 13 violations for plumbing;
- 13 violations for floors;
- 12 violations for hand washing facilities; and
- 12 violations for fabrication, design, installation and maintenance.
Korinski placed the blame for these violations on County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who oversees both the health department and the jail.
“I think we’ve seen throughout over a decade of the jail, the county executive just doesn’t care,” Korinski said. “Is there a point at which the health department run by the county executive could fine the jail run by the county executive in a sufficient amount to make the county executive care? I don’t think so.”
Bryan Salaj was present for one health department inspection.
“It would cost more money to shut everything down than it would to fix it,” Salaj said, “They just pay the fine.”
Salaj said a layer of “black slime” covered the kitchen floor and pooled into what he called a “pond” in front of the main drain, which was clogged. He referred to the kitchen as a “sewer,” and said the slime consistently covered the floor when he worked there.
“There was raw sewage where we were preparing food,” Salaj said. “The drain was clogged, so there’s standing sewer water … and we’re walking over it and no one is trying to address it.”
Since 2014, the jail kitchen has been cited 13 times for the conditions of their floors and 18 times for cleaning and sanitation. They have also been cited nine times for waste water disposal.
“Many of these issues have since been resolved,” Geleynse, wrote in an email referring to the Feb. 28 inspection.
Two follow up inspections to the February inspection, held on April 4 and April 28, acknowledge that improvements were made, but both still cited the kitchen for pest management issues and both of those are marked as high risk.
“Pests are common in restaurants, cafeterias, and other food facilities,” Geleynse wrote. “The jail contracts with an outside company that provides extermination services and will continue to do so to maintain the health and safety of the incarcerated individuals and the employees.”
The health department’s follow up report on April 4 referred to the methods used by the pest companies as “insufficient,” and noted “the size and history of the facility.”
Brian Englert, a corrections officer and president of the corrections officers union, agrees that the jail should be doing more. He feels the jail needs to rethink their strategy for addressing the pest problems.
“They lay down glue traps, they lay down mouse traps … no mouse is going to run into that trap when there’s an abundance of food in the warehouse that they have access to,” Englert said.
Englert said he is upset at the lack of transparency from the county to the incarcerated individuals, to corrections officers, and to the Jail Oversight Board.