Pa. county sheriff takes prison board to court over lack of EMS transports for inmates

"If an inmate would require medical attention en route to an emergency room at a hospital, the EMS ambulance crew is better prepared than my deputies" Westmoreland County Sheriff James Albert said


Paul Peirce
Tribune-Review, Greensburg, Pa.

WESTMORELAND COUNTY, Pa. — Westmoreland County Sheriff James Albert is taking a dispute with the county's prison board to common pleas court.

The sheriff and the prison board are sparring over a requirement that sheriff's deputies transport sick inmates to and from the county jail for medical treatment.

The sheriff and the prison board are sparring over a requirement that sheriff's deputies transport sick inmates to and from the county jail for medical treatment.
The sheriff and the prison board are sparring over a requirement that sheriff's deputies transport sick inmates to and from the county jail for medical treatment. (Photo/Getty Images)

In a lawsuit filed Friday, Albert is seeking a declaratory judgement to overturn an existing court order that directs sheriff's department deputies to transport inmates in the custody of the county prison to all medically necessary treatment that must be performed outside the prison.

Albert said he's seeking the judgment to safeguard deputies.

"As the elected sheriff, I will do my utmost to protect the deputies from unnecessary dangers from diseases and liability. I have tried many times to convince members of the prison board that the sick and injured inmates at the county jail that the facility's contracted health care provider Wexford Health Sources can't treat should go to the medical facility by ambulance and not be placed in the back of a sheriff's vehicle with medically untrained deputies," Albert said.

Albert said in the lawsuit that all other third class counties in Pennsylvania use ambulances to transport inmates to hospitals.

"My guys aren't medically trained," Albert said. "If an inmate would require medical attention en route to an emergency room at a hospital, the EMS ambulance crew is better prepared than my deputies."

Commissioner Doug Chew, who is chairman of the six-member prison board, declined comment on the lawsuit Sunday.

"I only learned of the pleading Friday. At this time I have no comment until I have a chance to review it with our counsel," Chew said.

Albert contends in the lawsuit that the county's existing five-year contract with Wexford calls for the company to provide medical care for inmates in the lockup and pay the transportation costs.

In the lawsuit, filed by the sheriff's department attorney Henry L. Moore, Albert claims during the past five years Wexford has been paid $11 million to provide medical care for inmates. Albert contends that the county's contract with Wexford contains language that includes it being responsible for prisoner transports to outside medical facilities.

Albert also contends in the lawsuit that the ongoing dispute and use of ambulances rather than sheriff's deputies is a concern of the union that represents the deputies.

Over the last year, Albert has twice temporarily halted inmate transfers. County commissioners have threatened to cut the sheriff's budget over the dispute.

After an hour-long executive session at the prison board's July meeting, Albert resumed the transports but said he would investigate a legal avenue to rescind the order.

"(Albert) believes that the continued use of Westmoreland County Sheriff's Deputies to transport inmates to and from the Westmoreland County Prison and any hospital ... especially in light of the current covid-19 epidemic, could jeopardize the health and safety of not only a sick or injured inmate being transported to a hospital by a medically untrained Sheriff's Deputy, but might also cause infection or injury to the deputy himself or herself," the lawsuit states.

The prison board — which includes Albert, all three county commissioners, District Attorney John Peck and Controller Jeff Balzer — has not yet been served with the lawsuit paperwork. The board meets at 10:30 a.m. Monday.

The court docket indicates the judge assigned to hear the matter is Judge Chris Scherer, a former county sheriff.

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(c)2021 Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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