By Brittany Hailer
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.
In some cases, the jail doesn’t publicly acknowledge deaths of the incarcerated because incarcerated people are transferred to a hospital before their deaths making them “no longer on our count,” according to jail officials.
The Jail Oversight Board, which is supposed to provide checks and balances at the jail, has infrequently addressed comments inquiring into the deaths of incarcerated persons, and none of the 13 deaths that have occurred there since April 2020 have been investigated by the JOB.
Allegheny County Police take jurisdiction of deaths at the jail, but the findings of those investigations have not been made public, nor have they been discussed publicly at JOB meetings.
Investigations have also not been discussed privately in executive sessions of the JOB, according to Brad Korinski, chief legal counsel for Allegheny County Controller, who has sat in on Jail Oversight Board meetings as the proxy for former board member Chelsa Wagner. Korinski said the board gets a simple notification of a death in an email, and “out of a three-hour JOB meeting we talk about deaths for what, five minutes?”
Korinski said he fears the county has become “complacent” in regards to deaths at the jail.
“You can’t just sit on your hands and pretend everything is fine, or pretend that your institution is normal, because this isn’t normal. If 13 people died at any location, any facility, or during any activity over the course of two years, it would trigger an investigation. And that’s not to say that those deaths are attributed to wrongdoing–but there’s lessons that a facility can learn. Deaths are sentinel events. You have to learn from them,” Korinski said.
An increase of deaths in custody during the pandemic is not unique to Allegheny County, said Bret Grote, director of the Abolitionist Law Center. Correctional facilities across the state are facing staffing shortages and medical care issues, “But the number of deaths for the population at the jail is pretty striking,” he said.
Grote said the Jail Oversight Board should open an investigation into the jail. But ultimately, Grote said the situation in Allegheny County comes down to leadership.
“To fix the problems at the jail, or make steps for harm reduction, requires a change in leadership,” Grote said. “I am not aware of another instance where the corrections officers union has called for the warden’s head. That’s extremely unusual.”
County Councilwoman and Jail Oversight Board member Bethany Hallam said that grieving families have submitted public comments to the Jail Oversight Board expressing hurt and confusion after a loved one’s death, but those comments are not read or addressed with any diligent answers, Hallam said.
“Everyone is stripped of their humanity. The way these deaths have been previously reported by the media and by the jail. Investigation is never communicated to the JOB or to the public. And everyone moves on,” Hallam said. “The county’s M.O. is to hide everything that goes on inside the jail, including this massive loss of life. They will do anything they can to stop information.”
Noah Barth, Prison Monitoring Director at the Pennsylvania Prison Society, said the 13 deaths at Allegheny County Jail warrants a thorough investigation, and transparency would help the jail identify problems and seek solutions.
“When we look at all of these deaths at one time, a clear pattern emerges of obfuscation, denial, lack of accountability and lack of oversight. And there might be perfectly reasonable explanations for some or even most of these deaths,” Barth said.
“The Prison Society believes that every life matters and, until there is a thorough mechanism for investigating and transparently reporting on each one, the family and larger public will never be aware of if these government actors are treating our neighbors justly,” Barth said.
Failures to report to the public and the federal government
Incarcerated persons have reached out to the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism several times to report a death previously unknown to the public. Families have also contacted PINJ to report the death of their loved one. In one instance, the Catholic Diocese confirmed the death of a former priest after the jail released him from custody due to his medical condition. PINJ has reported a jail death on three separate occasions before the Jail Oversight Board was notified.
The federal government passed the Deaths in Custody Reporting Act in 2000, which requires jails to report all deaths that occur while a person is in custody. According to an investigation conducted by PennLive, of the five reported Allegheny County Jail deaths in 2020, only two were reported to the state Department of Corrections. Yet three deaths were reported to the federal government. Less than half of all deaths in Pennsylvania jails in 2020 were reported to the federal government, the investigation found.
The county maintained that there were only three deaths in custody in 2020 because two others had medical releases and that they properly reported them.
Jails have been accused of releasing incarcerated persons to avoid reporting a death in custody. In Allegheny County, three incarcerated persons—Martin Bucek, John Brady, and Paul Spisak—died after being transferred to a hospital from the jail and their deaths were not reported to the Jail Oversight Board. PINJ was notified by families and incarcerated persons and was the first to report the deaths.
Former Allegheny County Jail Deputy Warden Laura Williams said during an October 2021 Jail Oversight Board meeting that whether an individual is still in legal custody of the jail determines if the jail will report the death to the Jail Oversight Board or the public.
“If someone is in our custody and we send them to a local hospital and they are no longer in our legal custody, I am not speaking about the physical presence in our building…if they are no longer incarcerated–a determination made by the courts, not by us, we don’t have the right to the protected health information of those individuals. We do not have the right to report on that individual,” Williams said.
A judge can release an incarcerated person from custody if they are severely or critically ill, according to Williams. The jail can also advocate for the release of individuals, she said. She called this a 6A release and said of those individuals that they are “No longer on our count.”
“There are a number of circumstances when the jail has advocated for the release of individuals and we will continue to do so,” Williams said.
However, Tannyr Watkins, public affairs specialist with the Department of Justice, told PennLive that county officials who said they did not have to report deaths after a release for medical reasons are incorrect.
“If the incarcerated person, absent the medical condition, would have been in prison at the time of death, it counts as a reportable death,” Watkins told PennLive.
County officials recently reiterated their stance that they are not required to report these deaths in response to an inquiry from PINJ.
Roadblocks to information
PINJ filed a Right-to-Know request in October 2021 in an effort to determine how many men and women were granted a 6A release from the jail in 2020 and 2021.
After an extension, a public records officer for the county said the information existed, but the files were too hard to search. The county wanted PINJ to provide names of individuals who had been 6A released. Ultimately the request was denied for failure to provide the names of the incarcerated.
That request was appealed by PINJ. But the county argued that it attempted “to find records responsive to this request but could not because the ACJ does not maintain a list of the reasons for inmates’ release.”
The Office of Open records determination of the appeal is pending.
In a separate Right-to-Know request filed in February for emails from jail and county officials with the word “6A release” and variations thereof, the county last week asked for an extension beyond the 30 day requirement in order to redact over 2,000 emails.
Families of the incarcerated have not received medical records
Families of Cody Still, Robert Harper and Martin Bucek, incarcerated men who died while in jail custody, have not received medical records of their loved ones, despite being executor or administrator of the deceased person’s estate, and despite making multiple requests to jail officials. Under Pennsylvania law, executors of a decedent’s estate or, the next of kin responsible for the remains, are allowed access to all medical records of the deceased.
Martin Bucek’s family requested his medical records from the jail through a lawyer. The jail Clinical Manager wrote in an email to the Bucek family lawyer on Aug. 24 2021, “In cases where an inmate passes the records must be subpoenaed.”
Those records were provided at the end of February 2022, according to Geleynse. Dolly Bucek said she had provided her power of attorney documents and ex-husband’s death certificate back in August 2021, but she said she had to hire an attorney in order to get access because, “When I requested them, they refused.”
The next-of-kin for Still and Harper have also requested medical records from the jail. They have made multiple requests themselves, but also through the help of the Abolitionist Law Center. The ALC confirmed that proper legal documents including death records and power of attorney designation letters were provided to the jail on behalf of the families. Gelenyse said in an email the medical records were not granted because the proper legal documents were not provided.
The families report that jail records officers have said they needed to confirm the request with higher-ups in order to ask about whether the records can be turned over. Family members said phone calls and emails are not returned and that no jail official has explained what process is necessary to obtain records.
The jail provided John Brady’s family medical records after his death in November 2020 after ALC attorneys filed requests on their family’s behalf and provided proper documentation.
Maria Bivens, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, said in an email that Pennsylvania Department of Corrections “requires proof of designation of an administrator or executor of the estate” and that the requestor must submit “letters testamentary or letters of administration, and complete a DC-108 Authorization for Release of Information form.” The medical records department then consults with the Office of Chief Counsel to further verify the information.
“If approved, information will be released upon receipt of applicable replication charges,” Bivens wrote. “The only information categories that cannot be released are HIV and Drug and Alcohol treatment information.”
Allegheny County Jail spokesperson Jesse Geleynse,appeared to agree with the DOC. He wrote in an email, “… the personal representative of the decedent (the person under applicable law with authority to act on behalf of the decedent or the decedent’s estate) has the ability to exercise those rights – including gaining access to the information.”
A legal document indicating that family members are the personal representative of the deceased must be presented to the jail before records are granted, according to Geleynse.
County officials did not have an immediate answer as to why the Bucek family was told they must subpoena for medical records.
When medical records are denied, it is hard to determine exactly what happened to an individual in the days before their death. If that individual does not have next-of-kin, there is no one to request or review the record.
Allegheny County and Philadelphia Counties are the only counties in Pennsylvania where autopsy records are not public, further blocking information. When an incarcerated person, or any person in Allegheny County, does not have Next-of-Kin to request an autopsy record, or jail medical record, accountability and transparency diminishes.
“It’s problematic for people who don’t have next of kin. Not only are families served by the coroner in determination of matter or death, it is society as a whole,” said Melissa Melewsky, an attorney at the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association. “Society as whole is entitled to understanding how a coroner determines death, and they can hold them accountable.”
Brittany Hailer can be reached at Bhailer08@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @BrittanyHailer.