by Jo Ellen Nott
In the two years since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, deaths have more than doubled at the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) in downtown Pittsburgh, even as the jail population was cut drastically in an effort to curb the spread of the SARS-COV2 virus. Yet only one of those 13 deaths was attributable to the disease.
That number of deaths rivals mortality totals in the period from 2014 to 2015, which led ACJ to cut ties with its private healthcare contractor, Corizon Health, replacing it with Pennsylvania Allegheny Health Network. In the four years that followed, ACJ deaths fell by half, averaging fewer than three fatalities per year.
The recent explosion in the number of fatalities has caused an even bigger spike in the death rate because the jail is holding some 900 fewer people than at the start of the pandemic, leaving an average population of about 1,600. So now, compared to the national average for jails—154 deaths per 100,000 detained in 2018, the most recent year for which federal Bureau of Justice statistics were reported—ACJ’s death rate (over 400 per 100,000) is once again far higher.
What happened? A December 2020 report by the nonprofit Public Source pointed presciently to problems in mental healthcare at ACJ and frequent turnover of medical staff: “Fifteen former medical and mental health employees described impossible workloads, insufficient staffing, being directed to do tasks that they worried threatened their medical licenses and management they denounced as ‘hostile’ and underqualified.”
The county’s Jail Oversight Board (JOB) has also received numerous requests to address staffing issues at ACJ. “Staff is so short that inmate care is being compromised,” an anonymous “concerned employee” wrote to JOB in June. “Employees are doing jobs that normally two, three, or four staff would do.”
A closer look at the thirteen who died at ACJ in the recent 24-month period underscores problems with staff shortages and healthcare services.
Richard Lenhart, 49, April 11, 2020:Lenhart was sentenced to serve six to 12 months for trespassing, theft, and a traffic violation. Then the jail went on lockdown for COVID-19. Finding him unresponsive in his cell 38 days after making his plea deal, jail medical staff performed CPR until paramedics arrived and pronounced him dead. Cause of death was atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.
Robert Blake, 36, May 24, 2020: Blake hanged himself in his cell with his jail uniform after a transfer from solitary confinement to ACJ’s general population. He was being held on a probation violation for cashing bad checks. The Allegheny County Police Department opened an investigation, but no findings have been released to JOB.
Cody Still, 29, October 1, 2020: One day after he was booked into ACJ on a burglary charge, Still was sent to the hospital for a suspected overdose. There he suffered two strokes, had brain surgery and fell into a coma. His family was notified eight days later, taking him off life support when a second blood clot entered his brain. Questions remain about 20 unexplained bruises on his lifeless body, but ACJ has still not released his medical records to his family.
John Brady, 40, November 20, 2020: Brady was allegedly driving under the influence of opiates, oxycodone and methadone when he was arrested. At ACJ later that day, he was given four medications to help him detox. Found unresponsive hours later, he was transferred to a local hospital, where he stayed on a ventilator 10 days until his mother authorized its removal. For the 15 to 20 minutes he went without oxygen while housed in an intake cell, his family blames ACJ. The jail didn’t initially report his death because he’d been transferred to a hospital and was “no longer on our count,” former Deputy Warden Laura Williams told JOB.
Daniel Pastorek, 63, November 26, 2020: An alcoholic trying to self-medicate schizophrenia, Pastorek lived in homeless shelters off and on. His problems with the law included jaywalking, public drunkenness and hitchhiking, as he accrued over $1,000 in fines he was too indigent to pay, leading to his incarceration. He arrived at jail using a walker and was assigned to a housing unit for the acutely suicidal, where he cried out from his cell for 19 days, complaining of chest pains and vomiting. He died on his cell floor on Thanksgiving Day.
Martin Bucek, 55, July 3, 2021: Bucek had suffered bipolar disorder since 2005, attempting suicide several times. He called EMS frequently to seek hospital admission, according to his community mental health team, which recommended he be held at ACJ after several violent incidents to await admittance to a state mental hospital. On June 23, 2021, Bucek was taken to ACJ. But he never never made it to the state hospital. He died face down in the suicide prevention unit after choking on a piece of food. Former Warden Williams insisted to JOB it was not a suicide.
Robert Harper, 48, September 12, 2021: This is the only COVID-19 fatality ACJ reported, after Harper was arrested for participating in a robbery with a family member. His wife, Sheila, said her husband was first incarcerated at a young age and never learned to live on the outside. He’d been hospitalized a month before she found out, leaving her five minutes with him before he died in handcuffs on a ventilator.
Vinckley Harris, 48, September 20, 2021: Accused of stealing a credit card to pay $113 for cigarettes and a VISA gift card at a Speedway gas station, Harris was taken to a hospital after he was found unresponsive in an ACJ intake cell. He died three days later of hemorrhagic shock, a death the medical examiner ruled accidental. Warden Orlando Harper reminded JOB that Harris was never committed to the jail, leaving his family to wonder why hospital records say it relied on “the jail warden” for a Do Not Resuscitate order. JOB member and County Councilwoman Bethany Hallam called that “abhorrent.”
Justin Brady, 38, September 23, 2021: Brady arrived at ACJ the same day as Harris and also fell ill during intake, when he began vomiting. Advising staff he was detoxing, he was sent to a hospital and never returned, dying there of aspiration pneumonia. He was the first cousin of John Brady (see above).
Paul Allen, 55, October 9, 2021: Booked into the jail for DWI and driving on a suspended license, Allen had already told the arresting Wilkinsburg Police officer that he’d recently had a stroke. In ACJ, he complained of difficulty breathing, was seen in the medical unit and then transferred to a hospital, where he died of what was later determined to be bronchial asthma.
Roger Millspaugh, 74, December 22, 2021: Millspaugh was arrested on child pornography charges and held in the ACJ medical unit, where he was found unresponsive during “medication pass.” Cause of death was atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.
Paul Spisak, 77, January 28, 2022: A former Catholic priest accused of filming a 13-year-old in a Target restroom, Spisak died at a hospital six days after being found unresponsive in his cell at ACJ. A court had ordered his release from jail due to his deteriorating medical condition, but JOB didn’t know it. JOB also didn’t know he was taken to the hospital. JOB didn’t even know he died until the media reported it.
Gerald Thomas, 26, March 6, 2022: Thomas collapsed and died at ACJ of bilateral pulmonary embolism. The charges against him—for illegal gun and marijuana possession—had been withdrawn due to an illegal search of his car, but a judge ordered him held to prevent him from “dying on the streets.” Perhaps he thought dying on a cell floor was better?
Sources: Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, Public Source
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