Inmates, advocates still fighting for better healthcare at Allegheny County Jail

A controversial for-profit company is out, but a health justice group says problems persist.

Allegheny County Jail

Allegheny County Jail

glindsay65 / Flickr
Sarah Anne Hughes

The Allegheny County Jail Health Justice Project’s mission is in its name: to ensure that the people incarcerated at the Downtown facility get better healthcare services.

The group will hold an education session tonight at BOOM Concepts, where they will recruit new members, talk about prison abolition, conduct community outreach training and write letters to people incarcerated at the county jail, as well as to trans prisoners seeking pen pals through the Black and Pink project.

“Our group is focusing on abolition of prisons and jails: what that means, how it’s more realistic than we really think,” said TeOnna Ross, the Health Justice Project’s campaign manager.

For two years, a controversial for-profit corrections company managed healthcare at the Allegheny County Jail. Eleven incarcerated persons died during Corizon’s tenure — twice the national average — and several others said they were provided poor or inadequate medical care.

Just over a year ago, the county decided to bring healthcare at the jail back in house.

The Allegheny County Jail Health Justice Project launched in 2015 to protest Corizon’s contract and to raise awareness about medical neglect inside the facility.

“We really made a big deal of getting Corizon out,” Ross said.

But even with Corizon gone, its work continues.

In September 2015, the county and Allegheny Health Network — Highmark’s regional system of providers and hospitals — took over healthcare services at the jail. Since that time, three people incarcerated at the jail have died: John Orlando and Jeffrey Michael Heil, whose deaths were ruled suicides; and James Michael Marasco, whose death is under investigation.

Spokespeople for Allegheny County and the Allegheny Health Network both declined to comment for this story, citing pending litigation.

County officials have said bringing healthcare back in-house has already improved care.

“The first year has been a great experience and a job well done by our health service department and [Allegheny Health Network],” Warden Orlando Harper told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last month.

But people incarcerated at the jail continue to claim neglect.

In a suit filed this summer, Melissa Edmonds, 37, of Pittsburgh — who’s serving a sentence for retail theft and simple assault — said she broke her finger in self-defense in December and eventually had to undergo surgery because the jail delayed her care. The finger later became infected, Edmonds said in her suit, because jail employees did not regularly change the dressing.

Christine Leal, 45, of Braddock — currently serving two to four years for aggravated assault — said in a complaint filed this month that the jail failed to give her needed seizure medication on Sept. 20 and Sept. 21. As a result, Leal said she had three seizures.

That allegation is not a new one. The family of Frank Smart Jr., who died during Corizon’s tenure, sued the company and the jail last year, saying employees did not provide Smart with seizure medication in a timely manner then shackled him during a seizure. The case is pending in District Court.

“To this day, I have not received any official notification from the Allegheny County Jail letting me know that my son died. They did not even have the courtesy to call me and tell me what had happened,” Tomi Lynn Harris, Smart’s mother and a Health Justice Project member, wrote in The Guardian last year. “The disrespect shown to me is nothing compared to the level of inhumanity and dehumanization that inmates who have health care crises at the ACJ face.”

According to Ross, the Health Justice Project has also heard from incarcerated persons who say they aren’t getting psychiatric medication, seen by a therapist and, more generally, appropriate medical care.

The group collects information from incarcerated persons through surveys and does outreach at the jail, most recently in August. Ross said project members did outreach at the jail at least once a week in June and July.

With local artist-activist collective 1 Hood, the Health Justice Project is also working on a documentary about medical neglect at the jail, which they hope to complete by January.

On Tuesday, people are invited to share their or a loved one’s story about the jail on camera. Ross said the film will also include readings of prisoners’ letters.

Ross, who recently succeeded activist Julia Johnson as campaign manager, said the project is trying to grow membership.

“The more people we have the more social capital we have to spread the word about what’s happening at the jail,” she said. “We’re able to tell more stories.”