As with other jail deaths, few details have been made available
By Brittany Hailer
Another man incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail has died and his family has questions about what happened to him.
Gerald Thomas, 26, died Sunday at UPMC Mercy where he was taken after suffering a medical emergency in the jail. Jail officials have made no public announcement about the death, but Thomas’ identity has been confirmed by his family.
The Thomas family held a press conference at Lighthouse Church in Mt. Oliver this afternoon. Gerald Thomas’ aunt Diane, who declined to share her last name, said her nephew was “a bright young man” with a “bright future ahead of him.”
The Thomas family was not notified by the jail of his medical emergency and subsequent hospitalization, Diane said.
An incarcerated individual contacted the Thomas family and reported that Gerald Thomas had collapsed, hit his head and was unresponsive. The family immediately called the jail but they were not given information about where Gerald Thomas was hospitalized or his condition, Diane said in the conference.
“We are going to do everything we can so this tragedy does not become something forgotten,” Diane said.
Gerald Thomas’ mother, Juana Saunders, said that she has yet to see her son’s body since he died. She was turned away when she went to the hospital. She said she was told by the county medical examiner that she was barred from accessing his body for “legal reasons.” She has not been able to identify him.
“I have no answers for what happened,” Saunders said.
Brandi Fisher, president for Alliance for Police Accountability said in the press conference, “It is strictly inhumane for a mother to go to a hospital and be refused to see her child.”
Fisher said the jail is “in violation of their very own policy that states that they are responsible for reaching out to family members any time someone who is incarcerated has a serious illness or even a death. You would want to know if something happened to your loved one. This family should have known, and the jail should have followed its policies.”
Allegheny County Jail spokesperson Jesse Geleynse wrote in an email, “I cannot comment on any of the jail’s policies. I can confirm the deceased individual’s next of kin was notified following his death.”
The jail’s policy, obtained by the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, states: “It is the policy of the Allegheny County Bureau of Corrections to facilitate notification of an inmate’s death or life-threatening affliction to next of kin… in an expedient and efficient manner. Furthermore, it is also the policy of the ACBOC to facilitate notification of the date, serious illness, or serious injury of an immediate family member.”
After the press conference, county officials released more information about the notification process than they made available earlier in the day. Thomas’ brother was the emergency contact listed at the jail and he was notified shortly after Thomas’ death, according to Geleynse.
“Four members of the family came to the jail seeking information. Warden Harper and several members of his team spoke with them in the facility. As is the practice, the chaplain also reached out to the emergency contact,” Geleynse wrote in an email.
The Medical Examiner’s office made multiple attempts to contact the legal next of kin, Thomas’ mother Saunders, on Sunday.
“Saunders returned those calls this morning…the office advised that they had taken jurisdiction in the case and shared information with her on the processes and protocols moving forward,” Geleynse wrote.
In an email obtained by PINJ, Warden Orlando Harper on Sunday informed the Jail Oversight Board of the death, “Shortly after noon, a male in his 20s was exiting his cell when he asked other inmates for assistance before collapsing. A medical emergency was called, and lifesaving measures were performed until medical arrived on the unit,” Harper wrote.
Paramedics arrived on the scene and “took over compressions and were able to get a pulse for the person, after which the individual was transported to the hospital,” the email said.
Shortly after 2:00 p.m., “the hospital notified the jail that the individual had passed,” according to Harper’s email.
Brian Englert, president of the corrections officer union at the jail, wrote in a statement regarding Thomas’ death that “the jail is understaffed on officers and medical staff…It’s my understanding that the jail was understaffed again in critical spots.” Englert has previously reported to the Jail Oversight Board his concerns about medical staffing at the jail.
“This is the warden and the county’s responsibility, like the operations in this facility,” Englert wrote.
Geleynse said an internal review will be conducted and that County Police Internal Affairs has initiated an investigation. Geleynse did not confirm or deny Thomas’ identity.
“Identification of the individual, as well as cause and manner of death, will be released by the Allegheny County Office of the Medical Examiner according to its protocols,” Geleynese wrote in an email.
The Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s office did not immediately respond to a media inquiry.
Thomas is the second individual to die following a medical event at the Allegheny County Jail this year. His death is the thirteenth since the onset of the pandemic.
Brittany Hailer can be reached at Bhailer08@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @BrittanyHailer.
This story has been updated to include the correct spelling of Gerald Thomas.
This story has been updated to include information from the Thomas family press conference.