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Pa. county to partner with third-party organization to review jail deaths

Since April 2020, 16 individuals incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail have died, five in the first eight months of 2022

By Hallie Lauer
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

ALLEGHENY COUNTY, Pa. — Less than 24 hours after the Allegheny County Jail reported the fifth death of an incarcerated person this year, county Executive Rich Fitzgerald on Monday announced plans to contract with a third-party organization to conduct “a historical review” of the fatalities that have occurred within the facility.

The proposed contract agreement is with the National Commission on Correctional Healthcare, which recommends a three-pronged approach to investigating deaths among incarcerated people: an administrative review, a clinical mortality review and if the death is a suicide, a psychological autopsy.

Sunday evening the jail reported that 78-year old McKees Rocks resident Ronald Andrus was found unresponsive in the medical unit.

Mr. Andrus had been in the hospital for the past 10 days, but was released back to the jail earlier on Sunday, according to a statement from Warden Orlando Harper. He had been in the facility’s medical unit for about an hour before the incident. Mr. Andrus was the fifth incarcerated person to die in the jail this year.

Under current practices, the jail completes an internal review after a jail death. The incident is then turned over to the Allegheny County Police Department’s Internal Affairs department for a secondary review.

The county’s medical examiner’s office also does its own investigation into the cause and manner of the death.

Now, the NCCHC will “be another independent and holistic review of incidents over a longer time period,” the county said in a news release.

Mr. Fitzgerald noted that it’s “more important than ever” that people can be confident in the review’s taking place and that NCCHC will be able to tell “what went right, what went wrong, what could be done better, and what, if any, policies and procedures need to change based on the results of that longer-term look at incidents.”

NCCHC, a nonprofit that started in the 1970s, is the same company that the county currently works with to review and make recommendations on the jail’s suicide prevention efforts.

Physicians, behavioral health experts and correctional policy and security experts will be part of NCCHC’s review, Mr. Fitzgerald said.

“I have directed the administration and jail administration to cooperate fully with this review and to provide the NCCHC team data and records and participate in first-person interviews,” his statement said. “Once the team completes its independent assessment, the members will summarize strengths and weaknesses and will also identify opportunities for further exploration or improvement.”

Members of the Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board have recently been asking the jail administration for access to the medical records of incarcerated people who have died, however Mr. Harper said that they couldn’t provide that information because of the chance of future litigation.

While board member and county Councilwoman Bethany Hallam said this was a “great first step,” she said was “skeptical” about this organization coming in to review the jail’s handling of deaths of incarcerated people.

“What are they doing with the information that’s collected?” she asked. “Who is it going to be shared with, because if it’s a bunch of information that’s collected and only given to Rich Fitzgerald and his administration, and Warden Harper and his administration, then we’re in the same boat that we’ve been in for all these years.”

Despite being on the Jail Oversight Board and an at-large member of County Council, Ms. Hallam said she was not aware the county was entering into this contract until a member of the news media called her on Monday to ask about it.

“The fact that they just announced this without having discussed it with either County Council or the oversight board ... the entire process doesn’t bode well for a true a true assessment of the complete failure that is the jail,” she said Monday evening.

In addition to a full review, Mr. Fitzgerald is also exploring the possibility of a review team that would also be able to independently look into jail fatalities in the future.

“There must be something in place moving forward,” he said. " Allegheny County isn’t the only county experiencing an increase in fatalities at its jails and a process for review would benefit all of those facilities and communities.”

The county executive has been in discussion with the county delegation about introducing legislation at the state level that would create the review team, he said in his statement.

Allegheny County courts and the medical examiner’s office have also been included in these discussions, according to the county’s statement.

The review team would be structured similarly to a team the county put together in 2008 to investigate fatalities or near fatalities of children in instances where abuse or neglect were suspected.

However, Ms. Hallam pointed out that a review board “already exists” with the Jail Oversight Board and was developed and governed by a state statute that allows them to look into things like deaths in the jail.

“To create another board ... it’s nonsense,” she said. “What we need is the county executive and his warden of the jail to stop impeding investigations by the Jail Oversight Board ... and to be transparent about what’s going on in the jail with the people who are already statutorily mandated to conduct these investigations.”

Since April 2020, 16 individuals incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail have died, five in the first eight months of 2022.

Almost exactly a month prior to Mr. Andrus’ death, Victor Joseph Zilinek, 39, was reported dead by the jail on July 13.

On April 28, Jerry Lee Ross Jr., 48, of Pittsburgh, was found unresponsive in the jail. CPR was delivered by jail staff before Mr. Ross was declared dead inside the jail by a medical provider.

On March 8, Gerald Thomas, a 26-year-old inmate, collapsed in the jail after suffering a bilateral pulmonary embolism. He was taken to UPMC Mercy, where he later died. According to the medical examiner’s office, Mr. Thomas died of natural causes.

On Jan. 22, Paul Spisak, a 77-year-old inmate, was found unresponsive in his cell. After he became awake and stable, jail staff took Mr. Spisak to a hospital. Mr. Spisak died there eight days later while released from jail custody.