“Are we running a jail or a cemetery?” Mother asks Allegheny County Jail warden 

Jake Dabkowski

Inadequate medical staffing at the Allegheny County Jail, jail officials’ failure to notify families of deaths in a timely manner and Warden Orlando Harper’s response to families were publicly addressed today at a Downtown rally and later at the Jail Oversight Board meeting. 

The Abolitionist Law Center held a public rally outside of the City-County building before the 4 p.m. board meeting. A group of family members of the incarcerated and other community members spoke at both events.

Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism reported in March after two years of investigation that 13 men died after entering the Allegheny County Jail. In April, a 14th man died. 

“No one should have to beg to see a doctor. No one should have to hope and pray that the nurse makes it to them before they pass away alone on a jail floor,” said Juana Saunders, 48, whose son, Gerald Thomas, 26, died in March at UPMC Mercy Hospital after collapsing in the jail. 

“I ask the Jail Oversight Board and Warren Harper, are we running a jail or a cemetery?”

The rally was attended by about 30 people, some of whom were family members of the victims who spoke out about what they perceive to be inhumane conditions within the jail, including inadequate medical staffing, food quality, and lack of oversight and accountability from local government officials.

“Gerald was a gift, our gift, and he was taken from us. I never thought I would stand here talking about my son in the past tense,” Saunders said.

Saunders criticized Common Pleas Judge Anthony Mariani’s decision to refuse to release her son from jail on Feb. 17 at a probation violation hearing, despite the fact that evidence that led to his probation violation case was successfully suppressed and his charges were dropped.

Saunders filed an investigation request in May with the Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board about Mariani, citing racial bias and failure to act impartially. According to court transcripts, during Thomas’ release hearing, Mariani accused Thomas of living a “guns and drugs street life” and remarked that he “was surprised [Thomas] wasn’t driving something with 22s on it,” a reference to 22 inch rims, which are often stereotypically associated with drug dealers.

“I wish that I could say something to Judge Mariani,” Saunders said at the rally “and if I had the opportunity to say something, I would tell him today that he is wrong. He was wrong about Gerald. Gerald was not a criminal, he was just a young man trying to find his way.”

Tanisha Long, a community organizer for the ALC, also called out Mariani at the rally for his use of “racist dog whistles.” Long criticized the frequency of these comments, saying “These are not red flags, they are stop signs.” 

At the board oversight meeting, she directly addressed the warden.

Tanisha Long at the rally hosted by Abolitionist Law Center. Photo by Jake Dabkowski

“You are hearing from people who have been directly impacted by the actions of the Warden…The man who cannot look at the families—Warden Harper you are the running theme in all these conversations. And you can stare ahead and pretend that we are not talking to you, but it is the truth,”Long said. 

Long also questioned the legality of Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s absence. Steve Pilarski, deputy county manager, attends meetings as Fitzgerald’s proxy. But according to Pennsylvania statute, the county executive is mandated to attend the meetings.

Multiple speakers at the rally pointed to Fitzgerald’s lack of attendance at the meetings. Kimberly Andrews, a formerly incarcerated person, who in 2019, filed a federal lawsuit against Warden Orlando Harper, pointed out that Fitzgerald spoke at CCAC’s recent graduation ceremony but not at the oversight board meeting.

“I almost said to Rich Fitzgerald’s face myself, I almost ran onto the graduation stage and met him, because it’s ridiculous,” Andrews said at the rally. 

Edwuan Whitehead, a field organizer for the National Court Watch Network, also addressed the warden at the oversight board meeting. 

Edwuan Whitehead addresses Warden Orlando Harper at June 2022 Jail Oversight Board Meeting.

“​I don’t know you very well, Warden Harper, and I don’t want to judge you as a man… but I don’t know how you go to bed at night, knowing that you have blood on your hands,” Whitehead said. 

“Knowing the conditions in which the people, the human beings, in the facility that you oversee are not being met to the fullness that it could be. There are people who have lost their lives that could have been at home with their families.”

Jake Dabkowski is an editorial intern through the Pittsburgh Media Partnership from Point Park’s Center for Media Innovation. He can be reached at jcdabko@pointpark.edu.