People incarcerated in the Allegheny County Jail reported ongoing problems with food, physical abuse and access to medical care in the Prison Society’s first facility-wide survey of the jail.
Almost everyone surveyed (95%) reported regularly going hungry due to insufficient meal portions or inedible food. One in four said they had been the victim of physical abuse by another resident, and one in five reported having been physically abused by a staff member. In addition, more than half of incarcerated people (52%) reported being unable to receive medical care.
“Our survey suggests that the odds of getting medical care in Allegheny County Jail are worse than a coin flip,” says the Prison Society’s executive director, Claire Shubik-Richards. “Incarcerated people describe food that is so disgusting and calorie-deficient that three-quarters of them go hungry every day,” she adds.
The Prison Society’s survey provides evidence that longstanding problems threatening the health and safety of incarcerated people in Allegheny County Jail remain entrenched. The county has committed to supporting future surveys twice a year, a major step towards the transparency needed to begin resolving these issues.
A year of little progress
Since April 2020, 17 people have died in the jail’s custody, a rate far exceeding the average for U.S. jails. Incarcerated people and their families have frequently reported difficulties accessing health care amid a documented shortage of medical providers in the jail. In a 2021 survey conducted by the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work, incarcerated people reported delays receiving routine and emergency medical care and unreliable access to needed medications. That survey also found that three-quarters of people in jail custody frequently supplemented their diets with food purchased at the commissary because of the poor quality of meals.
One year later, the jail seemed to have made little progress on these issues. The Prison Society survey was provided to all people in general custody between July and August of 2022, receiving a total of 330 responses. More than half of respondents said they had been served rotten food in the past month. Fifteen people mentioned seeing mold on food in their narrative responses, and many described dishes that were barely edible. One incarcerated person commented:
"The food isn't necessarily rotten but a lot of it is inedible. There are meals like ground-up hotdogs over undercooked, unflavored noodles in water. And whatever meat byproduct they are using in meals is horrible. It smells spoiled and tastes nothing like ground meat.”
In written comments, incarcerated people reported waits of up to 85 days for medication and named 38 corrections officers who they alleged were responsible for misconduct, assault, or harassment.
Other findings include:
The Prison Society detailed the complete survey findings in a memo to Allegheny County Jail Warden Orlando Harper, which is available on our website along with the warden’s response.
A positive step forward
In addition to documenting serious concerns, the survey also identified some good practices at the jail. There is greater access to phones than the Prison Society has observed in several other Pennsylvania jails, with 83% of people reporting being able to make a phone call at least once a day. Eighty-seven percent also reported that they can do laundry at least once a week.
Moreover, the county's commitment to conducting the survey is itself commendable. "It takes a forward-thinking administration to undertake a survey like this and to commit to regularly listening to jail residents. This is a major undertaking and a major step towards transparency," Shubik-Richards said.
The survey was developed and conducted with the cooperation and support of the Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board, the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, and the Allegheny County Jail.