The Allegheny County Jail recently reported the fourth death of a person in custody so far this year. The six deaths during 2021 make the jail’s death rate 2.5 times higher than it was pre-pandemic, and more than double the most recently reported national average reported by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Efforts to understand this surge in deaths have been stymied by the jail’s administration, which has persistently refused calls for more transparency, and even misled the public with claims that its death rate is not out of the ordinary. Though information about what led to the deaths is scarce, the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism reported that of the 10 people who have died since 2021, at least one likely died by suicide, and seven suffered medical emergencies in the jail. The causes of the two most recent deaths have yet to be made public.
Concerns about medical care
The reporting on deaths in the jail comports with what the Prison Society has heard from the people who live and work in the jail—that it is ill-equipped to provide essential medical care. Preventable death, illness, and injury follow, as do lawsuits. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that, “In the last four years, Allegheny County taxpayers have paid out more than $1 million in lawsuits related to care in the jail.”Like correctional facilities across the country, the ACJ is struggling with staffing shortages following an exodus of corrections and medical staff during the pandemic. These shortages are so bad that the intake unit was without a medical or mental health professional assigned to it during 13 overnight shifts in February, according to Brian Englert, the president of the union representing the jail’s corrections officers. When reached this week, Englert told the Prison Society that there are still times when there isn’t a single medical or mental health care worker at intake. Englert said that people arriving with substance use disorders and other conditions can wait over 24 hours to be seen, and that corrections officers are sometimes put in the position of judging whether people arriving with injuries are well enough to be admitted or should be sent to the hospital.
The first days in jail can be perilous
The lack of medical and mental health care upon entering the jail is especially concerning in light of research on jail deaths showing that a large proportion of deaths occur shortly after people arrive. A Bureau of Justice Statistics report on deaths in jail in 2019, the most recent year for which it collected data, found that about 40 percent happened within the first week in custody. Suicide was the leading cause of death.Over the past several years, the Prison Society has collaborated with The Center for Human Rights Science at Carnegie Mellon University to study deaths in Pennsylvania jails. The University’s analyses of data “show that close to 40% of jail deaths in recent years have been suicides,” said Robin Mejia, director of the Statistics and Human Rights program at the center. “Experts agree that the period shortly after incarceration is particularly risky.”