Jail Oversight Board member Chelsea Wagner describes “a real veil of secrecy” around deaths reported at the Allegheny County Jail

By Brittany Hailer

County Controller Chelsea Wagner, a member of the Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board, said today that the handling of deaths at the jail represents “a mindset of treating people in the jail as less than human.”

Her comments came in response to a July 28 story published by the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (PINJ) that detailed recent deaths in the jail and focused on the unreported death of John Brady, an incarcerated person who died at UPMC Mercy Hospital after being found unresponsive at the county jail in November.

The story also outlined how few details are released by jail officials when deaths are reported.

“There’s always been a real veil of secrecy, it doesn’t do anyone any kind of good,” said Wagner.

“There’s a culture of not respecting the fact that these are residents. They are individuals who have not been convicted of a crime. We need to be caring for them,” she added.

John Brady, 40, was found unresponsive in his cell and was rushed to UPMC Mercy Hospital. Ten days later, he was taken off a ventilator and died. Councilmember and Jail Oversight Board member Bethany Hallam said she did not recall Brady’s death being reported to the JOB.

The PINJ story prompted Wagner to investigate the issue.

She confirmed that Brady’s death “absolutely was not reported to us.” Wagner had three people review JOB meeting transcripts and emails to verify that jail administration did not notify the oversight team.

Previously, no other member of the JOB has spoken out about these deaths for attribution besides Councilmember Bethany Hallam.

Wagner said that when the JOB does receive information from the jail, it isn’t always helpful or meaningful.

“Beyond the initial reporting, we should have a followup with detail. What happens with many matters in the jail–there is an inappropriate allusion to privacy concerns. You can certainly meet all those requirements and ensure that as a public institution that you are still meeting basic measures of decency in terms of providing timely and adequate information,” she said.

Wagner called Brady’s death heartbreaking and said it never should have happened. She said the JOB should have been notified of his death regardless of whether he died inside or outside of the jail walls.

“When people are transported out—it would be wise for us to be very deliberate in a policy in terms of reporting. Not only if someone is passing within the jail walls, if someone passes away outside of it, we should know about that, too,” Wagner said.

Wagner also said that, “Withholding information doesn’t do (County Executive Rich) Fitzgerald any good politically, either.” Fitzgerald serves on the JOB and has direct authority over the jail administration.

Fitzgerald has been criticized in recent months for not attending JOB meetings in person, but sending a designee.

“You put things out in the light of day, that’s how the government works best. Right now, you’re crippling the JOB from doing their right job,” she said.

Brittany Hailer can be reached at Bhailer08@gmail.com