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Contraband in Allegheny County Jail 'ongoing battle,' officials say

| Monday, Nov. 19, 2012, 1:36 p.m.
Allegheny County detectives discovered two shanks hidden inside the soles of Ronald Robinson’s shoes.

County officials acknowledge that drugs and other contraband pervade the Allegheny County Jail but say they are working to fix the problem.

“Obviously, this is the culture in jails across the country,” County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said. “It's one of those ongoing battles.”

County detectives discovered two 5-inch sharpened metal objects hidden in the soles of inmate Ronald Robinson's shoes on Wednesday when they searched his cell after guards found him unresponsive hours before the scheduled start of his homicide trial. Robinson is charged with the Dec. 6, 2009, fatal shootings of Officer Michael Crawshaw, 32, and Danyal Morton, 40, of Penn Hills.

Robinson, 35, was hospitalized in UPMC Mercy, Uptown, where doctors found marijuana in his system. They could not say, however, why he collapsed.

On Thursday, deputies took Robinson from the hospital to the Municipal Court Building, Downtown, for arraignment on a new charge of possessing a weapon or implements for escape.

Patrick Thomassey, one of the lawyers representing Robinson, said contraband in the jail is commonplace.

“Everybody in that jail has a shank, and they keep it next to their marijuana,” he said.

County officials said they plan to make changes at the jail to reduce contraband — although they would not specify what they intend to do.

“We're looking into putting procedures in place to try to prevent it,” Fitzgerald said.

Chuck Mandarino, a corrections officer and president of the Allegheny County Prison Employees Independent Union, did not return calls.

Warden Orlando Harper said he has been on the job for 30 days — not long enough to know which contraband is a widespread problem. He declined to answer questions about how Robinson came to have marijuana in his system, but said he is “absolutely” looking into it.

“I'm going to do everything in my power to deter contraband coming in,” Harper said.

Jail employees search prisoners when they arrive and search mail before distributing it. They search visitors and ask everyone entering the jail to walk through a metal detector, although that is not fail-safe.

In June, police accused Ambridge attorney Michael F. Yagercik of bringing marijuana, tobacco and other contraband into the jail.

Ron McAndrew, a former warden who spent 20 years working for the Florida Department of Corrections, said guards and other employees bring in about 75 percent of drugs; visitors bring the rest.

McAndrew said wardens across the country fight the “uphill battle.”

“It's a reality, but every administrator, if he or she is truly a professional, they don't accept it as a reality,” he said.

“They fight it 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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