Report cites issues with suicide prevention at Pa. county jail

The Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board voted to form a subcommittee focused on suicide prevention


By Kate Giammarise
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

ALLEGHENY COUNTY, Pa. — The Allegheny County Jail should improve training and staffing, better integrate behavioral care with primary care and improve or replace fixtures to be more suicide-resistant in order to cut down on inmate deaths at the facility, according to a report that examined suicide prevention at the Downtown lockup.

Nine inmates have died by suicide since 2016.

On Thursday, Jail Oversight Board members voted to form a subcommittee on suicide prevention and the report's findings.

Warden Orlando Harper said some of the report's recommendations had already been implemented.

Deputy County Manager Barbara M. Parees voted against the creation of the subcommittee.

“The warden has a team at this time working through that report,” she said, and it wouldn't be helpful to have a subcommittee “work at cross-purposes.”

“I would ask that the committee be cautioned in those ways,” she said.

Councilwoman Bethany Hallam made the motion to create the subcommittee.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette obtained a copy of the report via a Right to Know request.

The report commends jail administrators and staff for their cooperation with the assessment and giving information “in a timely, professional manner.”

“It was clear ... that suicide prevention is a priority,” in the jail, the report notes.

However, it also noted 13 areas with room for improvement.

Among the problems the report highlighted:

  • Physical features that are "obstacles to visibility, supervision, and suicide prevention," such as corner cells that are difficult to monitor and observation windows covered with a screen.
  • Because of where medication is passed out, it occupies officers who must assist nurses for security purposes, therefore giving a window of time when inmates could potentially harm themselves.
  • A lack of privacy in the intake area means screenings can't be done effectively for mental health conditions.
  • “No cells are designed to be suicide-resistant. In areas where inmates are specifically being monitored because of suicide risk, cells should be modified to reduce the likelihood of completion,” such as replacing certain fixtures and furnishings.
  • “Enhanced policies are needed” for staff and mental health care and programs.
  • Medical staffing challenges, which have long been a problem at the facility.
  • Not enough integration of behavioral care and primary health care.
  • Specialized training isn't given to those working on suicide prevention; there are no drills to practice responses to suicide or suicide attempts.

The assessment was performed last year by Chicago-based NCCHC Resources, Inc.

Performing a suicide assessment itself was at the center of a jail board disagreement last year. Inmate advocates pushed the board to assess how to better prevent suicides, in light of what had then been seven deaths by suicide in the past three years. Since that time, two additional inmates have died, the most recent death was in May.

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