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Autistic Detainee’s Death in Pittsburgh Jail Blamed on “Culture” That Left Him “Punished Instead of Treated”

In a suit filed against Pittsburgh’s Alle­gheny County Jail on October 17, 2023, the survivors of a 57-year-old autistic detainee allege his death in custody was the preventable result of a jail “culture” that left him “punished instead of treated.” Anthony G. Talotta’s death on September 20, 2022, was also the jail’s 17th in 30 months, most of them previously reported by PLN. [See: PLN, May 2022, p.20.]

Talotta had been arrested 11 days earlier at the group home where he lived after an altercation over a spilled pot of boiling water that caused second-degree burns and fractures to his foot. Arriving at the jail from a hospital, he was described by staffers as “child like,” the complaint noted—his IQ was just 60—yet they also suspected he was being manipulative; a jail psychiatrist wrote that Talotta “attempted to blame his behaviors on his ‘Autism,’” according to Alexander B. Wright, an attorney representing Talotta’s estate with Pittsburgh’s O’Brien, Coleman & Wright, LLC.

Two days later, Talotta was back at the hospital for a splint on his broken foot and a pair of crutches. But jail staffers allegedly confiscated those when he returned, and they didn’t treat bacterial infections that the hospital had discovered. When he returned from another follow-up hospital visit for wound care two days later, antibacterial cream that he had been given there was also confiscated, according to the complaint. After that, his condition deteriorated until he was taken back to the hospital the day before he died—when he was conveniently released, so his death didn’t technically occur in jail custody.

An autopsy determined the cause of death was heart disease, though the hospital report blamed sepsis—bacterial blood poisoning—that eventually led to kidney and respiratory failure, diabetic ketoacidosis and cardiac arrest.

On behalf of Talotta’s estate, his cousin Jeffrey Lagrotteria filed suit in federal court for the Western District of Pennsylvania on October 17, 2023. Proceeding under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, he accused the county and nonprofit jail healthcare provider Alle­gheny Health Network (AHN) of violating Talotta’s civil rights, along with his rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. ch. 126 § 12101, et seq., and the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 701, et seq.

Specifically, the suit faults the county and AHN for employing jail physician Dr. Wilson Ber­nales despite previous medical license revocations or suspensions in Connecticut, Delaware, Louisiana, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Wyoming. Pennsylvania ultimately suspended Bernales’ license in October 2022, but only after an investigative report published by the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (PINJ).

In addition to Wright, Lagrotteria is represented in his suit by attorneys Jaclyn Kurin, Rupalee Rashatwar and Bret Grote from Pittsburgh’s Abolitionist Law Center. See: Lagrotteria v. Allegheny Cty., USDC (W.D. Pa.), Case No. 2:23-cv-01786.

Counting those convenient releases just before death, there were 25 detainees who never made it home from the jail between 2020 and the day Talotta died. Guards and healthcare workers blame inadequate mental health care and chronic understaffing, as well as unsafe working conditions and a lack of training, communication and information-sharing. Yet former County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, County Controller Corey O’Connor and Sheriff Kevin Kraus routinely sent surrogates to meetings of the Jail Oversight Board (JOB). The stand-ins then proceeded to roll their eyes, text and joke during public testimony about jail conditions and deaths, said JOB and County Council member Bethany Hallam (D-Brighton Heights), in a suit she filed in August 2023 to make them stop.

The following month, on September 29, 2023, jail Warden Orlando Harper resigned, just nine days after Talotta’s death and months ahead of his scheduled retirement. Deputy Superintendent Shane T. Dady became acting warden; he has worked for the county Department of Corrections since 1999, focusing on mental health and therapy.

Departing from precedent set by Fitzgerald, his successor, Sara Inamorato, showed up when JOB met for the first time after she assumed office in January 2024. The jail was then still investigating its most recent death, the apparent suicide of a detainee identified as Richard Sciubba III, 41, by his Pittsburgh attorney, Casey White.  


Additional sources: The Appeal, PINJ

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Related legal case

Lagrotteria v. Allegheny Cty.