Activists Protest Inmate Deaths at Allegheny County Jail | Blogh

Activists Protest Inmate Deaths at Allegheny County Jail

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Tomi Lynn Harris, whose son died at the Allegheny County Jail earlier this year, is demanding that the warden step down. - PHOTO BY ASHLEY MURRAY
  • Photo by Ashley Murray
  • Tomi Lynn Harris, whose son died at the Allegheny County Jail earlier this year, is demanding that the warden step down.

Today more than a dozen gathered in front of the Allegheny County Jail to protest the recent deaths of inmates and health-care issues at the facility. 

"In this past year alone several people have died because they did not receive the medicine they demanded," said protest organizer Julia Johnson.

Last week, two inmates of the Allegheny County Jail, both in their 20s, died on the same day, bringing the total inmate deaths for 2015 to four. As a result, on May 22, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald announced the county would not be renewing their contract with Tennessee-based  Corizon Health, the company that has been charged with overseeing health care at the jail since September 2013.  Prior to that, a nonprofit out of the county's health department managed health care at the jail.

"As we indicated last Friday, we have both verbally and in writing notified Corizon that we will not be extending our contract and our relationship with them [will] end August 31 of this year," county spokesperson Amie Downs said via email.

But protesters say the county executive's actions don't go far enough. They're calling on the county to hire an interim medical director and asking that community input be included in the selection of a new health-care provider. They are also demanding the immediate removal of jail warden Orlando Harper. 

Video by Ashley Murray

Following their protest, the group took their list of demands to the county executive's office where they were met by two police officers. Two representatives were allowed to meet with Fitzgerald's chief of staff.

"It's clear from this conversation that they don't want transparency — that they want to have these conversations behind closed doors," said Johnson. 

Seven inmates died in 2014, and a January 2015 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article that reported the death of a 62-year-old inmate who spent 10 days at the jail, also reported that the Allegheny County Jail's mortality rate is double the average of jails nationally.

That statistic has become a rallying point for the ACJ Health Justice Project, which formed earlier this year.

At the protest, the group heard from Tomi Lynn Harris, the mother of 39-year-old Frank Smart who died in custody at ACJ in January. According to Harris, her son died because the staff at ACJ refused to provide him with seizure medication.

"The warden needs to step down. This happened under his watch," Harris said. "My son begged for his medicine. My son was murdered."

The group also heard from Lynne Boley, the mother of a current ACJ inmate who says her son is not receiving adequate medical care to treat his diabetes.

"Corizon may not kill my child," said Boley. "My son does not have a death sentence. Corizon may not carry it out by medical neglect."

In April, City Paper reported that the state American Civil Liberties Union had opened an investigation into whether HIV/AIDS patients were getting access to medication. Another jail inmate died a few weeks later.

Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, a staff attorney at the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, which provides legal assistance to low-income inmates whose constitutional rights have been violated, told CP in April that the Allegheny County Jail has "probably the worst health care in the state [she's] seen when it comes to prisons and jails."

Corizon's contract expires at the end of August. The private management company and medical staff at the jail just reached their first labor agreement at the end of April.  


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