Allegheny County announces contract for ‘historical review of fatalities’ hours after fifth jail death

By Brittany Hailer

Ronald James Andrus, 78, died in the Allegheny County Jail Sunday. Andrus was being held on a probation violation at the facility since mid-July, according to an email Warden Orlando Harper sent to the Jail Oversight Board. 

“He had been in the hospital for the last 10 days but was released earlier today to return to the jail. He had been back at the facility on the medical unit for about an hour when a medical emergency was declared,” Harper wrote in the email. 

Andrus was declared dead by jail medical staff shortly before 4:00 p.m. on August 14, according to the email. 

On Monday, hours after Andrus’ death, the office of County Executive Rich Fitzgerald announced a contract with the National Commission on Correctional Health Care to conduct a “historical review of fatalities” at the Allegheny County Jail.

NCCHC recommends an administrative review and a clinical mortality review for every death in custody. In the event of a suicide, a psychological autopsy is recommended, according to the county press release.

Kim Sterling, NCCHC vice president of professional services, said NCCHC is still finalizing the
“statement of work” with the county. She did not clarify if the fatalities review would be published in a report, or if the review would be made public.

“Our findings will be delivered in a report to the County Executive,” she wrote in an email.

County Spokesperson Amie Downs wrote in an email that while NCCHC will handle the review, “we would expect that a final report would be provided to the [Jail Oversight Board] and public.”

In his first public address of jail deaths since the onset of the pandemic, Fitzgerald said in the press release, “I have directed the administration and jail administration to cooperate fully with this review and to provide the NCCHC team data and records and participate in first-person interviews.”

Listen to Brittany Hailer discuss the NCCHC review of Allegheny County Jail fatalities here.

Allegheny County Councilperson At-Large and Jail Oversight Board member Bethany Hallam said the county executive has not discussed the contract with NCCHC with the Jail Oversight Board or County Council and did not know about the contract prior to its announcement. 

“And while I am happy that, for the first time in my memory, the county executive has directly and publicly asserted his authority over the operations and leadership of the jail, it is embarrassing and tragic that it has taken so long and so many deaths before he felt compelled to do so,” Hallam wrote in an email.

The NCCHC would identify “what went right, what went wrong, what could be done better” and what “policies and procedures need to change based on the results of that longer-term look at incidents,” according to the county press release. 

The NCCHC has reviewed the Allegheny County Jail due to fatalities before.

NCCHC was preciously contracted to conduct an assessment in 2019 after the jail reported seven suicides in three years. The NCCHC audited the the jail’s suicide prevention program and made recommendations for improvement. The 2019 report observed “shortages in nursing and mental health specialists” and recommended the jail focus on correcting their staffing numbers. 

Staffing shortages continue to be the subject of monthly Jail Oversight Board meetings, where members of the community and the jail corrections officers have raised concerns about in-custody deaths. 

The timeline of Allegheny County Jail deaths this year are as follows: 

  • Victor Joseph Zilinek, 39, died in July in the Allegheny County Jail, his cause and manner of death has yet to be released from the Allegheny County Medical Examiner.
  • Jerry Lee Ross Jr., 48, died at the Allegheny County Jail in April. No details were given about the individual’s medical emergency. CPR was conducted by employees at the jail and he was declared dead by a medical provider at the jail, according to an email from jail spokesperson Jesse Geleynse. The cause and manner of death has not yet been determined by the medical examiner.
  • Gerald Thomas, 26, died in March at UPMC Mercy Hospital where he was taken after he suffered a medical emergency in the jail. Thomas died of a bilateral pulmonary embolism, according to the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s office.
  • Paul Spisak, 77,  died in January in a hospital after the court released him from Allegheny County Jail custody following an incident which left him unresponsive in his cell on Jan. 22.  The medical examiner determined that his cause of death was blunt force trauma. The manner of death was ruled an accident.

Since the onset of the pandemic in 2020, 16 men have died after entering the facility. The Pittsburgh Institute of Nonprofit Journalism published a timeline of 13 jail-related deaths in March.

Five deaths occurred in 2020. Six deaths took place in 2021, with three happening in September. Five more men have died in 2022. The majority of the men who died had not been convicted of a crime and were awaiting trial.

In Allegheny County, families of incarcerated individuals who die after entering the Allegheny County Jail have difficulty getting details about what happened to their loved ones. Autopsy reports remain closed to the public and families are not always given medical records when they are sought. The jail releases little information about deaths. Death announcements, when they are issued, often cite simply that an “incident” occurred before the deaths.  

“It’s more important than ever that there be confidence in these reviews and while NCCHC will look at these fatalities historically, there must also be something in place moving forward,” Fitzgerald said in the county press release.

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

Photo by Jake Dabkowski

8/23/2022: This story has been updated to include a statement from the National Commission on Correctional Health Care and County Spokesperson Amie Downs.