By Charlie Deitch
While incarcerated individuals at the Allegheny County Jail won’t get universal testing, they will be getting $50 in their accounts from the county’s $3 million inmate welfare fund.
That was one of the calls that the Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board made during a two-hour meeting on Thursday. It was the panel’s first session since local, state and county governments started dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak in mid-March.
Jail officials and Dr. Luann Brink of the Allegheny County Health Department spent a large portion of the meeting answering specific, detailed questions from board members and others about the jail’s response to the COVID-19 virus.
The Pittsburgh Current has spent the past month looking into the jail’s handling of the crisis and found employees not confident in jail management and a timeline of events that doesn’t add up. Additionally, the Current has taken a deep dive into statistics at the jail regarding racial makeup of the jail population and how much the jail population actually decreased since March 16.
The biggest item was the discussion of why universal testing at the jail hasn’t been done. Many jurisdictions have moved to universal testing and found large numbers of asymptomatic people who were positive.
Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner said she had hoped to address the issue with the county’s Medical director and infectious disease coordinator.
Universal testing: “It’s the only way to comprehend the level of COVID19 in our jail,” @bethanyhallam Hallam says. "what do we have to lose," Hallam said. Judge Beth Lazzara said a negative test could give a false sense of security and make them complacent.
— Charlie Deitch (@CharlieDee71) May 7, 2020
However, neither were at the meeting, which was held virtually. ACJ Deputy Warden for Healthcare Services Laura Williams, who answered many of the questions, said those medical professionals were “not present because they are hard at work.”
However, Wagner said, “it’s important for the board to be able to communicate directly with them.” She asked that they are made available for the board’s next meeting, which is to be a special meeting to discuss the universal testing issue.
In earlier remarks, Brink said that the source of infection for some inmates has not been determined. That could mean they contracted the virus from an asymptomatic patient.
Hallam made a motion that universal testing be carried out at the jail, however, the measure failed with only her, Terri Klein and Wagner supporting it.
However, board members seemed interested in exploring the issue further and gathering more information. Again, that information wasn’t made available because the medical staff was not available. Williams, despite her title, does not have a medical background.
“Although I’m deeply disappointed in tonight’s JOB vote regarding universal testing for incarcerated folks and staff at the Allegheny County Jail, I’m confident that this fight is not over,” Hallam said after the meeting. “I look forward to having a conversation with the appropriate jail medical experts in the coming days in order to formulate a plan for universal testing to propose to the full Board.”
However, a second motion made by Hallam was unanimously approved.
She asked that $50 be deposited into the account of each incarcerated individual from the jail’s Inmate Welfare fund.
Board member and former Allegheny County Councilor Terri Klein supported the motion saying, “I think these are very difficult times and I think even we all, with the privileges that we have are having a difficult time. I can only imagine how hard it is being incarcerated and not having family visits. I think this is a small thing that we can do to perhaps help make their life at the Allegheny County Jail a little less difficult.”
Few on the board understand the jail like Hallam, a former addict who was incarcerated at the facility for several months.
“We need to be focused on supporting our most vulnerable populations whenever possible, but especially during a global pandemic. I’m thrilled that the Board voted in favor of a $50 commissary deposit to be made in the account of every incarcerated person in the ACJ,” Hallam said. While families with incarcerated loved ones are struggling with their own financial difficulties at home, this eliminates an additional burden on them and allows access to phone calls, prepaid postage envelopes to write home, hygiene products, and additional food to incarcerated folks who did not have the means to acquire these things before.”
Charlie Deitch is editor of the Pittsburgh Current, where this story first appeared.