By Brittany Hailer
After over ten years at the helm, Allegheny County Jail Warden Orlando Harper announced his retirement on Tuesday. His last day as warden will be Sept. 29.
“I have been honored to serve in this role for over a decade and am announcing my retirement with mixed feelings,” Harper said in a county press release.
Harper’s retirement announcement comes as Rich Fitzgerald’s three terms as county executive draw to a close. This January, a new county executive will have authority over the jail.
The Fitzgerald administration will be working with President Judge Kimberly Berkeley Clark to identify a search firm for the new warden. The firm will be responsible for making opportunities for community input, according to the county’s press release.
Allegheny County Councilwoman and Jail Oversight Board member Bethany Hallam said “good riddance” in a statement released shortly after Harper’s retirement announcement.
She made three recommendations for transition in light of the county executive’s soon-to-be vacated position: The county should not hire a new warden until the new executive enters office; any steps to hiring should include a search committee; community members, including families of those who have died at the jail, should be involved in the warden selection.
“This coming year, and the years after, hold a lot of promise. We will be transitioning out of a decade of despair and death and—I hope—into one of possibility and even optimism,” Hallam said.
Sara Innamorato the democratic nominee for county executive, said she had been clear throughout her campaign that the jail needs new leadership.
“We need a transparent, national search for a new warden where all stakeholders — including family members of incarcerated individuals, formerly incarcerated people, the workers at the jail, criminal justice reform advocates, and community members — have a voice in who ultimately holds this position.” Innamorato said. “I will work with the community to find a new leader prepared to work with all stakeholders to address significant gaps in quality healthcare, mental health supports, and workforce issues at the jail.”
Joe Rockey, the republican nominee for county executive who has been endorsed by the corrections officers union, said the selection of a new warden “is a decision that should rest with the next county executive and it should not take a full year as it did the last time.”
“This is the opportunity to get the right leadership to fix the broken jail,” he said.
Harper, who Fitzgerald appointed as warden in 2012, was no stranger to local and national media coverage during his tenure. For nearly three years, the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism has diligently reported on the 20 deaths of those in custody at the Allegheny County Jail since 2020, drawing attention of both local and national media, advocates and lawmakers.
“I have always preferred to let actions speak louder than words—sometimes to my detriment,” said Harper. “Regardless of the public narrative about the jail, I’ve seen first-hand the great work done here every day.”
In January, the county quietly settled a lawsuit with the controversial Joseph Garcia and his prison training company C-SAU over unpaid invoices stemming from a nearly $350,000 no-bid contract. Garcia’s relationship with the county began when Allegheny County Jail Warden Orlando Harper personally contacted Garcia on June 4, 2021 to request, “a cell extraction instructor course to correctional officers at the Allegheny County Jail,” according to emails obtained by Pittsburgh Independent and the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.
Harper and Fitzgerald have not returned requests for comment for stories involving the jail. Public information officers for the jail and county respond to emails for stories about deaths in custody or other jail matters.
For much of Pittsburgh media and beyond, information directly from Harper comes from monthly Jail Oversight Board meetings which often focus heavily on how Harper has governed the jail.
Meetings have grown heated between board members, jail administration and the public. Harper, his staff and board members abruptly walked out during a JOB meeting in June. Correctional and medical staff surveys presented to the board in June and July also cited contentious relationships between workers and Harper’s administration. JOB attendees and jail staff have called for Harper’s resignation, accusing the jail management of inefficiency and staff misconduct.
“[Warden Orlando Harper] has made it impossible for anyone in the chain of command to make a decision because they’re afraid of the level above them coming down and disciplining them,” corrections officer union president Brian Englert reported to PINJ when the officers survey was first presented to the JOB.
Aug. 8: This story has been updated to include statements from the democratic and republican nominees for county executive.