They stopped breathing while detoxing in an intake cell, choked on food while on suicide watch, and suffered hypothermia in a cell where the temperature was 62 degrees. Those were the circumstances of just a few of the people who have died in the custody of Pennsylvania jails during the pandemic. While there have been 11 officially reported deaths from COVID-19 in jails, dozens more have died from other causes.
The rash of deaths across the state points to systemic issues that continue to endanger people incarcerated in Pennsylvania county jails.
We often cite the crisis in Philadelphia’s jails, where 18 people died last year, as emblematic of these issues. But recent reporting on deaths in Allegheny County Jail and Dauphin County Prison show how unsafe jails in all corners of the state have become.
Thirteen deaths in Allegheny County Jail
A recent investigation by the Pittsburgh Institute of Nonprofit Journalism uncovered the circumstances of the 13 incarcerated people it found to have died in the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) since the beginning of the pandemic. Just one died from COVID-19. At least one more died by suicide, and the rest suffered medical emergencies in the jail.
John Brady was found “unconscious and not breathing” in his intake cell the same day he was booked. Just 40 years old, he died of “complications of opioid toxicity” despite jail staff’s knowledge that the drugs were in his system. Another of the deceased is Martin Bucek, 55, who suffered from bipolar disorder and died from a piece of food lodged in his airway while he was being housed in a suicide prevention unit. The PINJ report suggests Bucek’s death may have been a suicide, though the ACJ denied the possibility.
Corrections officers say that low staffing and the excessive overtime required to compensate for it have led to unsafe conditions in the jail. Like many other jails, ACJ has contended with staff shortages compounded by the pandemic. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that 64 corrections officers resigned "during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021.” Making matters worse, a Prison Society volunteer in Allegheny County learned that there are 53 vacancies on the jail’s medical staff. Corrections officers have had to respond to medical emergencies in the absence of enough medical staff, according to the officers’ union, and the intake unit was without a medical or mental health professional on staff during 13 overnight shifts in February.
The increased isolation of incarcerated people during the pandemic has also left them more vulnerable. They continued to be confined to their cells for 23 hours a day long after most prisons had eased COVID lockdowns. Staff shortages have contributed to these extended lockdowns and deprived incarcerated people of recreation time on days when there aren’t enough officers on duty to supervise.
Six deaths in Dauphin County jail since last year
Before the pandemic, the news agency Reuters found that Dauphin County Prison was the deadliest jail in Pennsylvania per capita. People confined in the jail have continued to die at a startling rate, with six losing their lives there since the beginning of 2021. The most recent was Jamal K. Crummel, 45, who developed hypothermia before he died in his cold, 62-degree cell on Jan. 31. Crummel also suffered from mental health issues, and while county investigators confirmed he had hypothermia, they don’t believe it caused his death. The county has yet to share a cause of death with the public.
The elevated rate of deaths led Dauphin County to hire former state secretary of corrections John Wetzel to conduct a review of the jail. Wetzel’s initial report, issued a few weeks after Crummel’s death in February, cited staff shortages, extended confinement in cells, and an increased prevalence of physical and mental health issues. He noted that half of the jail population was struggling with mental health issues at the same time that 15 percent of staff positions were unfilled, making it difficult to provide the higher level of attention required to care for incarcerated people with psychiatric conditions. Wetzel also speculated that keeping incarcerated people largely confined to their cells allowed fewer interactions where staff could become aware of any ailments they might have.
The reports coming out of Allegheny County and Dauphin County offer further evidence that staffing shortages, prolonged confinement in cells, and neglect are contributing to unnecessary deaths in county jails across Pennsylvania.
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