Survey finds fraught relationship between Allegheny County Jail corrections officers and administration

Nearly 100 corrections officers provided insight into jail’s high turnover rate 

Matt Glover

Officers responding to an Allegheny County Jail corrections officer job satisfaction survey reported inadequate staffing, forced overtime, dangerous work conditions and unsympathetic management. 

The survey found that all 98 corrections officers who responded feel their shifts are not adequately staffed. Only about 9%, or approximately 9 respondents, said that they feel valued and respected working at the jail.

“A lot of officers in that jail, we used to love coming to work every day,” Allegheny County Prison Employees Independent Union President Brian Englert said in an interview with the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. “We used to love the job. It doesn’t have to be a bad environment.”

The survey also highlighted the strained relationship between management and corrections officers. About 89% of responses said management does not understand the challenges they face on the job, and over 90% feel management is not receptive to their feedback or suggestions.

“[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,” Englert said.

“We run the jail; they tell us how to run it. When they can’t tell us, we run it anyway.”

Jail spokesperson Jesse Geleynse declined to comment for this story.

Warden Orlando Harper and Deputy Warden Blythe look on as Shabaka Gay and Corrections Officer Union President Brian Englert share survey results at the June JOB meeting.

The National Commission on Correctional Healthcare 2022 ACJ Mortality report also found communication issues between management and corrections officers. These include staff and supervisors not receiving correct information regarding critical incidents, deaths and suicides.

Some responses said Harper rules with fear, discipline and micromanagement, and he fires officers for small infractions even in their probationary period.

Forced overtime also drives a wedge between officers and leadership. About 93% of officers feel that forced overtime has become disruptive to their families, and about 90% said the forced overtime has negatively affected their physical and mental health. 

Many officers report working 80 hours per week. Over 78% of respondents felt they do not have enough flexibility in their schedule for personal or family needs.

Officers say they were told to get family and medical leave and use it to avoid mandatory overtime without punishment. 

One survey response alleged that officers have been fired for refusing to work a forced overtime shift even after providing medical documentation, and others ask management to limit forced overtime to two or three shifts per week and spread it evenly among shifts.

Additionally, about 93% of respondents said officer’s physical safety has become a larger concern. Englert reported eating in the cafeteria uring an overtime shift when the ceiling caved in and a rat came out.

Physical safety concerns, forced overtime and the management-employee disconnect has led to high turnover rates. 

In 2020, the jail hired 25 officers and saw 12 quit within the year, according to Englert. The following year, almost 70% of new officers left within the year, and over 60% in 2022. 

“When you have these kinds of rates,” Englert said, “you have to sit there and say, ‘why can’t I retain employees?’”

In March, County Councilwoman Bethany Hallam unanimously passed a resolution exempting jail corrections officers from any residency restrictions. Under the old restrictions, corrections officers had to be an Allegheny County resident for one year before being eligible to work in the jail.

The exemption allows corrections officers to enjoy the benefits of lower property taxes and potentially better schools in other counties while enjoying the increased pay at the jail. However, Englert said Allegheny County does not adequately advertise in other counties.

The average wage for corrections officers is $28 per hour, which ties the jail for the seventh-highest wage for corrections officers in Pennsylvania, Englert said. The average wage at Butler County Jail is less than $22, and the average wages at Washington and Westmoreland County jails are less than $20.

Despite the high wage, less than 50% of respondents feel their job benefits meet their family’s needs, and less than 30% believe they are paid fairly for what is asked of them.

Over 75% of respondents feel that they are asked to perform duties outside of their job description, and over 70% feel they have not received proper training for what is expected of them. Some responses also complained about the lack of in-person training and administration favoring the online training software PowerDMS.

As an alternative to Harper’s methods, one anonymous response suggested “discussing mistakes and errors with officers and showing us how to fix them rather than writing us up only to step us up to termination.” 

The survey consisted of 12 closed-ended and two open-ended questions relating to benefits, training, work environment and work-life balance.

John Kenstowicz of Corrections Collective, an initiative based in UPMC Western Psychiatric, delivered the results of the survey to the Jail Oversight Board and the public on Thursday. The numbers for forced overtime compared to last year have significantly increased, he said. 

Public comments at JOB meetings are limited to three minutes per person, so Judge Elliot Howsie did not allow Kenstowicz to finish reading the survey results. Instead, seven public commenters who had donated their time so Kestowicz could continue  reading.

“One of the purposes I had in bringing this to the attention of the board is to get them in the conversation, because they’ve been left out,” Kenstowicz said. 

He has been advocating for exit interviews for years and hopes to get the survey results to the search committee for a new warden. He said board members rarely go into the jail and have conversations with staff and corrections officers. 

Senior Deputy County Manager Stephen Pilarski receives a lawful notification letter from former corrections officer David Onyshko. Bethany Hallam requested, but Pilarski would not share the contents.

Judge Beth Lazzara advocated for talking to rank and file members in the December 2020 JOB meeting, but Kestowicz says the board has failed to make any meaningful progress.

“During [a] three-year period, they only talked to two people realistically with these exit interviews,” said Kenstowicz.

The survey was sent to about 360 officers, and about 28% of them responded. This was the first year of what Kenstowicz hopes will become an annual survey. He said officers may have been worried about anonymity, and others regret not participating. 

 He and his wife drafted the survey and plan to draft a similar one for jail healthcare workers. In 2019, the jail had 37 openings for healthcare workers. Currently, they have 94 openings, according to Kenstowicz. 

Christine Goodwin and David Onyshko, two former officers, used their public comment on Thursday to serve lawful notification letters to Senior Deputy County Manager Stephen Pilarski and Toma Blythe, the jail’s deputy warden.

“I’m hopeful for the future that there’s going to be people taking us, these officers and staff much more seriously than what has happened before,” Kenstowicz said. 

Photography and story by Matt Glover, a Pittsburgh Media Partnership editorial intern. He is a senior at Slippery Rock University.