A death in a Allegheny County Jail exposes COVID’s hidden toll

Brittany Hailer

This story first appeared in the Pittsburgh Current in December 2020.

For days, members of the Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board did not know who had really died within the walls of the jail on November 26. That is because they were emailed an old notice, a death copy-and-pasted from before, from another death that took place inside the ACJ earlier this year. 

Jail administrators didn’t realize their  error for nearly a week, according to Allegheny County Councilor at Large Bethany Hallam, who is also a member of the Jail Oversight Board. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing:  administrators had mistaken the jail’s most recent death for another, a suicide that occurred in June. To Hallam, it felt careless. 

(The Allegheny County jail has one of the highest suicide rates in the country. There were nine suicides at the facility between 2016 and June of this year.)

“They don’t even tell us the names, we find out the identity from the news,” Hallam said.

His name was Daniel Pastorek. He was 63 years old.

Pastorek’s court records show several cases going back to the 1980s. In 1980, Pastorek pleaded guilty to a DUI, which was dismissed. In 1995, he was cited for disorderly conduct and criminal attempt. In 2011, he pleaded guilty to a second DUI. 

In 2019, he was arrested for soliciting a ride in Harrison Township. 

In August, he was cited for public drunkenness.  

Magistrate Carolyn Bengel heard the case and sentenced Pastorek to 90 days in jail.  According to the Post-Gazette’s analysis, “Bengel’s court had the most cases with jailings for ‘failure to post collateral’ of Allegheny County’s magisterial district courts in 2016.” Pastorek lived in 05-2-05 magisterial district and when he intersected with the justice system, it was close to home. 

The Public Defender’s Office filed an appeal to Bengel’s ruling and Pastorek was scheduled for his summary appeal hearing on June 10. 

Pastorek failed to appear.

An email from Frank Scherer, director of adult probation, forwarded to the jail oversight board members reads, “A letter was sent to Mr. P. on August 28, 2020 advising him to report to begin serving his sentence on September 25, 2020. Mr. P. failed to appear on September 25, 2020 and a warrant was issued by the Court on September 29, 2020. He was apprehended on November 7, 2020 and lodged in the Allegheny County Jail.”

According to civil dockets, Pastorek was evicted from County housing in 2018. Magistrate Bengel ruled on the side of the plaintiff and fined Pastorek $716 in back rent. 

“For all we know he didn’t have stable housing in order to get a notice needing to appear,” said Hallam, “There was not a single violent tendency in that man, you can tell by looking at his record. And his entire criminal record is because of alcoholism and substance-use disorder and homlessness and poverty.” 

On November 26, Pastorek was found unresponsive in his cell. A corrections officer and medical staff tended to Pastorek until paramedics arrived. He was pronounced dead at 10:43 a.m. There will be an internal review and an investigation from Allegheny County Police, according to jail administration. 

There is no known cause of Pastorek’s death at this time. The Allegheny County medical examiner could not be reached for comment. 

For Hallam, holding the jail accountable is personal, and with decarceration should come safety nets for those struggling with substance use. Hallam is in recovery, too, and has been incarcerated at the ACJ. She said during her time there, everyone on her pod was in for substance use. 

Hallam said she got sober despite the jail, not because of it. 

Through community and compassion, she finally stopped using substances, and later ran for council. Her lived experience and empathy motivates her to advocate for the incarcerated persons at ACJ.

 “A Pennsylvania state statute mandates that the jail oversight board is to protect the health and well-being of those inside the jail,” said Hallam, “If we are not going to protect the people in the jail who are dying, who are we going to protect?” 

Detoxing from alcohol: 

Drugs and alcohol are the third leading cause of death in U.S. jails, according to a study published in Journal of Correctional Health Care in April 2020:  “Among the 103 deaths associated with substance withdrawal, 66 involved alcohol … Drugs and alcohol likely contribute to more deaths in jails than has been recognized due to how deaths are coded.” 

Dr. Lawson Bertstein knows the horrors of alcohol withdrawal. He’s the medical director for behavioral health at UPMC McKeesport and called the increase of folks detoxing at his in-patient unit a “deluge.” UPMC McKeesport is a 27-bed unit dedicated to detoxification and rehabilitation services for patients with substance abuse disorders and it is the only location in Allegheny County that combines the two services in one inpatient unit.

“This is a trainwreck. There’s nothing subtle about it … and it’s all age groups. Addiction is the great non-discriminator. It doesn’t care who you are and what you do. The great irony of it is that opioids can certainly kill you with overdose, but the withdrawal symptoms are so much worse for alcohol,” said Bernstein. 

Generally speaking, the more severe the abuse, the more severe the withdrawal syndrome, and unmedicated alcohol withdrawal can result in seizure, heart attack, and death. 

“Unmedicated opioid withdrawal you might be mighty unhappy–you will be–but unless you’re medically tenuous to begin with, it is unlikely to kill you,” said Bernstein, “People don’t tend to abuse one substance or just alcohol, there tends to be a combination of substances. So that makes the detox process much more complicated.” 

Over time, excessive alcohol use can lead to the development of chronic diseases as well as high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and liver disease. According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention, excessive alcohol use is responsible for more than 95,000 deaths in the United States each year, or 261 deaths per day.

Julia D’Alo, medical director at Gateway Rehabilitation Center, called Pastorek’s arrest and death inside the jail “so disturbing.” Gateway Rehab has been providing rehabilitation services in the Pittsburgh area for decades, including in-patient and outpatient treatment. 

Though D’Alo couldn’t speak to Pastorek’s case specifically, she spoke about the heartbreaking patterns of substance abuse disorders and incarceration. She said criminalization of substance use perpetuates addiction for many of the patients she sees at Gateway. 

“It just takes these people who already have these broken lives — you have people who have grown up with parents who have substance use disorders. They get into trouble when they’re teenagers and then they spend most of their lives incarcerated.”

D’Alo described a lifetime of cyclical trauma for those who get out of incarceration and use again. It is unclear what caused Pastorek’s death, but for many folks with alcohol or drug use disorder, health and medical treatment take a backseat to the disease. 

“You take this person who probably had underlying health issues, which were not being managed because his alcoholism wasn’t being managed. So, you take that person out of their home, where they were safer by themselves. That person needs to be in treatment, not jail or punishment. Treatment where they can get medical care and where they can be safely detoxed from the drug they were using,” said D’Alo. 

COVID-19 and substance use:

James Ellermeyer, a counselor and founder of Namaste Holistic Counseling, treated many clients inside the ACJ before the onset of the pandemic. Ellermeyer himself is 23 years sober, and uses that lived-experience in his practice. He often tells his patients, “Punishment didn’t do me any good.”

“It isn’t a matter of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, or getting a job,” said Ellermeyer, “They need to be listened to deeply and with compassion.”..

Ellermeyer described hostility  from jail security and administration when he entered the jail to treat residents for mental health issues or substance use disorders.

“Guards would say to me, why are you wasting your time on these people?”  

Over the summer, people in the jail could not leave because of staffing shortages. This is because people awaiting release could not be assessed or evaluated by medical professionals who would recommend 30, 60, or 90 days of treatment. Rehab facilities in the region had put restrictions on admitting incarcerated persons for fear of spreading COVID-19. 

“Understandably so,” said Hallam, “If I were running some sort of facility, I wouldn’t want people coming from the Allegheny County Jail where I know there doing nothing to mitigate the spread of COVID.” 

Hallam pointed out when incarcerated persons leave a state prison, they are tested for COVID-19 upon release. The ACJ does not do that, but instead, tests a sample of the jail population. 

Of the 866 ACJ incarcerated persons tested, 72 were positive for COVID-19 as of December 14. Renewal, a rehabilitation center next to the jail where many incarcerated persons were transferred, reported five positive cases of residents from the ACJ. The facility also has 14 positive employee cases as of December 14. 

What’s more, having a substance use disorder was linked with a higher risk of coronavirus, in a recent study by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. 

“It’s keeping people from treatment,” said Hallam, “Treatment that would save their life.” 

Sentencing, decarceration and rehabilitation: 

There are 600 people incarcerated in the ACJ currently for probation violations, which can also be a byproduct of substance use disorder.

In September, the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing published a report which shows that least 50 percent of individuals sentenced to probation in Pennsylvania “could be considered substance-involved at the time of sentencing.” One-third of resentencing for Pennsylvanians on probation is linked to substance use and this costs the commonwealth up to $2.9 million every year.

The Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing recommends considering the options for evidence-based treatment at an individual’s sentencing. People struggling with substance use who were ordered to treatment were less than 28% likely to commit a new offense. 

“Incarceration just doesn’t work,” said D’Alo, “These people need out so they can be treated with the compassion they deserve.”

From March 16 through noon on Dec. 14, a total of 5,355 inmates have been released from the jail. The jail’s population report as of Dec. 15 was 1,824.

President Judge for the 5th Judicial District of Pennsylvania (Allegheny County), and chair of the jail oversight board, Kim Berkeley Clark, was the keynote speaker at the “Justice and the Pandemic: Confronting COVID-19 in Correctional Health Care, the Courts and Law Enforcement” online conference hosted by John Jay College of Criminal Justice. 

During the webinar, Berkeley Clark said, “The warden [was] helpful, at least at first, to identify who were most at risk at the jail. Court staff worked around the clock to get this happen and the district attorney agreed that we needed to get people out of the jail. We didn’t have a big crime wave when we let these people out of the jail. What can we do to keep this up post-pandemic?”

However, the population of the jail steadily increased from the first wave of releases in the spring and summer of ~1,200 persons at the onset of the pandemic until November. The jail’s lowest watermark this summer was 1,641 from 2,400. As of Dec. 15, the population is at 1,824.

County officials have emphasized their release numbers, and the jail population has dropped, especially when compared to years of over-population, and  the current population is about 576 less than pre-pandemic levels in March.  

When asked about the county’s future plans and grant funding for decarcerating the ACJ, Berkley Clark said, “The county executive [Rich Fitzgerald] would like to tear down this jail. We need to work on something much much smaller.”

Jail Oversight Board meetings are open to the public and are held at 4 p.m. on the first Thursday of every month. 

SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.

SAMHSA’s National Helpline – 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

Brittany Hailer can be reached at Bhailer08@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @BrittanyHailer.