Pa. county’s jail board approves monthly inmate payments
Allegheny County Jail inmates will receive monthly payments of $125 for the first six months of 2024
By Steve Bohnel
ALLEGHENY COUNTY, Pa. — Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board members concluded their public work in 2023 during a meeting Thursday, giving a policy victory to the board’s most vocal member.
Common Pleas Court President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark, who is retiring in the coming weeks, chaired the meeting. Although Bethany Hallam, the County Council designee on behalf of Council President Pat Catena, remained frustrated that many of her questions weren’t being answered by jail administration, the board did pass one of her proposals — something that hasn’t happened in several months.
She asked colleagues to approve monthly $125 payments to inmates from the Incarcerated Individuals Welfare Fund, which the board oversees, for the first six months of 2024. That proposal passed in a 4-1 vote, as Ms. Clark, County Controller Corey O’Connor, Terri Klein, and Ms. Hallam voted yes. Stephen Pilarski, senior deputy county manager under county Executive Rich Fitzgerald, abstained.
Ms. Hallam has failed to get other policy measures through the board in recent months, including $500,000 for changing the color of jail uniforms from red to something else, and paying roughly 225 incarcerated people who work inside the jail $10 a day. County Council, however, approved both of those items in the county operating budget on Tuesday.
Allegheny County Sheriff Kevin Kraus, Common Pleas Court Judge Beth Lazzara, and Gayle Moss and Abass Kamara — the board’s other members — were absent from Thursday’s meeting.
The Incarcerated Individuals Welfare Fund collects money from profits on commissary items purchased by jail inmates and has also drawn from profits based on their mobile tablet and phone usage. Some jail board members, including Ms. Hallam and Mr. O’Connor, said in recent meetings that they were concerned about the fund’s long-term viability.
Ms. Hallam said that, given legislation recently passed by County Council, profits from phone calls and tablet usage by incarcerated workers will move from the county general fund into the welfare fund.
Mr. O’Connor said in November that Mr. Fitzgerald’s administration recently had to allocate about $700,000 to keep the fund afloat. During a County Council budget and finance committee meeting on Nov. 29, county Manager Jennifer Liptak said one reason the fund has shrunk in recent years is because the county is charging less for commissary items.
In response, Ms. Hallam successfully got her council colleagues to pass legislation that formalizes budgetary procedures for the Incarcerated Individuals Welfare Fund . Although there was no dollar amount budgeted in that bill, she and county officials estimate it will draw hundreds of thousands, if not over a million dollars, from the county’s general fund into the welfare fund.
Mr. O’Connor also had a proposal to create a three-member rules committee “to enact bylaws and rules of order, enumerate actions and member roles and responsibilities, and outline functions,” but agreed to postpone action until next month, as there will likely be multiple new jail board members.
That’s because county Executive-elect Sara Innamorato will have a seat on the board, and it’s not clear what judge will sit on the board. Also, it’s unclear which of the three citizen members — Ms. Klein , Mr. Kamara and Ms. Moss — will continue serving.
Multiple attendees of Thursday’s meeting thanked Ms. Clark during public comment for talking with them about issues at the jail, and criticized Common Pleas Court Judge Elliot Howsie (who has chaired several recent meetings) for how he conducted them, saying he impeded progress on difficult issues.
Still, like in prior meetings, Ms. Hallam continued her long line of questioning of jail administration, ranging on issues such as a recent U.S. Department of Justice settlement with jail officials about opioid use disorder treatment, to the procedures for how pods inside the jail are locked down, and many others.
At one point, she gave an impassioned speech about how she hopes that the board actually gets stuff done in the next four years. She said that she wished she didn’t need to keep asking jail administration for documents, for inmates to get proper medical care, and for less people to die in the jail’s custody.
Ms. Hallam was blunt in how successful she thinks the board has been.
“My first four years on this board has radicalized me,” Ms. Hallam said. “People thought I was radical when I got elected. But being on this board, sitting up here with these folks month after month, going into the jail, regularly talking to incarcerated folks and seeing firsthand things that I couldn’t have imagined, unless I had been in that jail myself seeing it with my own eyes, has truly radicalized me.”
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