Series of problems cloud outlook at Allegheny County Jail

Brian Bowling
| Sunday, July 3, 2011

On paper, the Allegheny County Jail seems like a model institution.

A 2010 inspection by the state Department of Corrections found it to be 100 percent in compliance with state jail standards, and the The Jail Collaborative program it operates with the Department of Human Services and Allegheny County Health Department to keep inmates from returning to jail has received praise nationally.

And yet the jail is under a federal investigation. The FBI executed a search warrant on the jail June 17. The county, FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office have refused to identify the purpose of the investigation.

They don't lack for possible targets. One jail guard is under federal indictment for assaulting an inmate. The jail is facing several civil lawsuits, including a claim arising from the death of a pregnant inmate and another alleging that a guard locked an inmate in a cell and watched as five other inmates beat and sodomized him.

The April 6, 2010, escape attempt by Gary W. Barbour, a 29-year-old homeless man, ended with Barbour injured and bleeding and taken to UPMC Mercy for treatment.

Incidents such as the Oct. 13 assault by a jail guard are actions of individual correctional officers rather than signs of a bad administration, said Marion Damick, 85, of Point Breeze, a member of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, a private organization that monitors how prisons treat inmates.

She said the jail is underfunded, but she doesn't believe it is mismanaged.

"I do not think that the county jail is worse than any other. I think they're doing the best that they can," she said.

Jail guard Arii Metz, 32, of the North Side, is accused of beating inmate David Kipp, 24, of Polish Hill. Metz is facing state and federal charges. A second guard, Marcia Wallace, 39, is accused of acting as Metz's lookout and is scheduled for trial starting on Wednesday.

The jail fired a third guard, Timothy C. Miller, 54, for filing a false report about the incident; he later testified against the other two guards. No charges have been filed against Miller.

That assault and several other high-profile incidents occurred during Ramon Rustin's tenure as warden. Rustin resigned in December to take a higher-paying job as chief of corrections for a metropolitan jail in Albuquerque, N,M.

Rustin couldn't be reached for comment.

Hired in 2004, Rustin, like his predecessor, Calvin Lightfoot, was seen as a reformer.

The Second Avenue facility opened in May of 1995. It replaced the century-old jail on Ross Street that was renovated to house the juvenile and family courts.

Allegheny County built the current jail after two decades of federal court orders and more than $2.7 million in fines. Although the primary complaint against the old jail was overcrowding, the facility originally came under court scrutiny for unsanitary conditions and inhumane treatment of inmates.

The jail is facing several lawsuits that dwell on both issues, including the wrongful death lawsuit by the family of the pregnant inmate who died from pneumonia. Amy L. Gillespie, 27, pleaded for medical treatment for at least two days — her family says two weeks — before guards heeded her worsening condition, according to the pending lawsuit. Gillespie died Jan. 13, 2010, at UPMC Mercy.

Mary Walsh, a lawyer with the Institutional Law Project, said the number of incidents at the facility are driven partly by its size.

"There are just so many people in the jail," she said.

The Allegheny County Jail, second-largest in the state, housed an average of 3,000 prisoners for the last six months of 2010, according to the Department of Corrections inspection report. The jail processes about 100 people daily who have been arrested by area police, according to the county's website.

Walsh said it's hard to compare the jail to others in the state, but she thinks it does have a problem.

Prisoners tell her they have trouble finding forms to file grievances and while the administration quickly responds to simple complaints, "They're not getting responses back on more complicated ones," she said.

The prisoners also feel their grievances don't get serious attention from the administration, which could be creating an environment that encourages abuses by guards, Walsh said.

Dan Burns, 46, of Belle Vernon, the interim warden who took over when Rustin resigned, said he can't comment on what happened before he took over, but his experience has been that the Allegheny County Police thoroughly investigate every complaint of abuse or assault.

From the volume of complaints he receives, the prisoners are "not shy about putting their complaints into writing," he said.

"Every grievance that comes to my attention is investigated," he said.

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