‘Try to do something’:  97-year-old Marion Damick shares 20-year history of attending Jail Oversight Board meetings

by Amy Whipple

At the January Jail Oversight Board meeting, Marion Damick stands behind a podium—her shoulders barely clearing its top—and pulls the microphone way down. “Here I am,” she says. 

She motions to the man who spoke before her. “What he said is absolutely true. You’ve done nothing, and that’s really a criminal offense.” She launches into a follow up on her suggestion from December— that the county use local medical students to compensate for the jail’s inadequate medical care.

“You ought to get onto it as quickly as possible,” she says. “At least while I’m alive. You know, I’m 97. How many times do I have to come up here? They’ll bring me [to] my funeral, and I’ll be talking to you.” Other attendees laugh and some clap.

“My face lights up every time Marion’s name is called to speak,” said Bethany Hallam, County Councilperson at Large and member of the JOB.

Damick has been a mainstay during the public comments portion of these meetings for decades—the earliest record of her speaking is 2002—and is something of a legend. For the JOB, this meant formally honoring and recognizing her for 25 years as “a tireless advocate for criminal justice reform” through a county proclamation that September 1, 2016 be Marion Damick Day. 

For the types of people who follow JOB meetings, this means the joy of an elderly woman roasting members of the board. “Oh, I didn’t recognize you because you said a word,” she said, directed to Steve Pilarski, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s designee. Or, while working in her current favorite topic, the rats in the jail, she commented on the quality of the food combined with reported pest droppings: “In fact, if you give the rats the meat, they’ll die anyway.” 

“I think she’s the only commenter who reliably gets a few laughs from the crowd,” said the anonymous holder of the Twitter account Allegheny County Jail Watch (@alleghenyJOB), who live tweets the monthly meetings.  

“Marion is always very surprising to me in the best possible way,” said Tanisha Long, Allegheny County Community Organizer at the Abolitionist Law Center and regular JOB meeting attendee. “She just makes you confront whatever pre-existing notion you had about people who show up at the JOB.”

Damick grew up in Pittsburgh, the daughter of a civil engineer and a social worker. She graduated from Penn State in 1943 with a degree in advertising; she later received an MA in the same from New York University. She’s filled decades serving—and continuing to serve—organizations like the Pennsylvania Prison Society, League of Women Voters, National Council of Jewish Women, and Meals on Wheels as well as being an active member of Rodef Shalom Temple.

In 1950, she began a 58-year marriage with Arthur Damick, with whom she had three sons: David, Daniel, and Dean. The couple had their share of fun—riding motorcycles, which Damick kept up until she was 80—and heartbreak—Daniel died in a plane crash when he was 17. They loved to travel; mementoes of those trips and decades together fill her Squirrel Hill home, the same one she grew up in and now shares with Dean, who is by her side at JOB meetings and at Chinatown Inn for dinner afterward.

In her early 20s, Damick experienced injustice firsthand when she sought a pre-Roe abortion, after which she needed additional medical care. Her mom brought news to the hospital:  someone from Damick’s job called to say she was fired. Damick said that, to this day, she’s never gone back into the downtown building where she had worked. The experience launched her into abortion rights activism. She pseudonymously recounted her story in Patricia Miller’s 1993 book, The Worst of Times: Illegal Abortion: Survivors, Practitioners, Coroners, Cops and Children of Women Who Died Talk About Its Horrors. 

“You just don’t realize what it can be like,” she said five months after the overturn of Roe.

Her abortion activism dovetailed with the early years of the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The group operated out of Damick’s basement with her sons answering the phone. She became the executive secretary in 1962 and, later, the executive director, a title she held until she retired in 1992.

photo courtesy of Marion Damick

Damick brings a long history of pragmatism to JOB meetings, which she got involved with through the ACLU. In 1980, she joined the Pennsylvania Prison Society. With that organization, she began visiting regional facilities. As part of the society, she receives letters from incarcerated people, who tell her of their experiences inside and outside of jail or prison. Damick folds this information—and the individuals who live it—into her advocacy.

When Damick started participating in JOB meetings, the nine-person board and a few community members attended—“There were maybe 20 seats there, and you were lucky if they were filled”—and the meetings weren’t as organized as they are now. After 2000,—on the heels of other sweeping changes, including the creation of the County Executive and County Council—the board shifted the responsibility of the ACJ’s daily operations and the hiring or firing of the Warden to the County Executive, with the board taking on the advisory role it holds now.

Some things, however, have stayed the same. One discussion Damick has participated in more than once over the years is that the ACJ inconsistently informs families of incarcerated individuals when they go to the hospital. “If you just [informed families]—half of the people who are coming here wouldn’t need to come,” she said at the December 2022 meeting, but, “pfff, you’ve done nothing. I’m telling you, try to do something.”

Long said, sometimes, “you wonder where [Damick] is going, and then boom, out of nowhere, you have this usually actionable and impactful statement.” 

Damick understands different perspectives regarding families potentially trying to visit their loved one in the hospital. “Nobody’s going to be happy,” she said, whatever the policy, but that shouldn’t stop families from being informed. Damick recalls a previous version of this discussion resulting in families being notified after their loved one had returned to the ACJ. A possible solution now, she said:  contact families immediately, not say which hospital, be transparent about the rationale, and say they feel badly about it.

“Try to care about the family,” she said.

Additional common criticisms of the ACJ and the JOB are many—for Damick as well as other public commenters.

One is Fitzgerald’s enduring absence from meetings. According to meeting minutes available on the county controller’s website (March 2012-November 2022), Fitzgerald has attended one meeting (July 2021). He is legally obligated to attend and, Hallam noted, has the authority to make immediate changes within the ACJ. Instead, he sends a designee to meetings, which goes against Pennsylvania statute. Another is the disrespectful conduct of board members during meetings. ACJ Watch described Judge Elliot Howsie, who runs the meetings, as “openly antagonistic,” even to Damick. Damick does not have the same assessment of Howsie; rather, she says, “He’s running a very good program.”

Long said that other members of the board have “a level of respect for Marion that they don’t have for the rest of the public.” They might still “smirk or laugh, but they never cut her off.” 

The most enduring criticism is that the JOB doesn’t uphold its duty by remedying what’s brought before it.

“I don’t see the oversight board as it is doing anything,” Damick said. “Some of them are certainly doing something, some of them really want to, but there’s so much politics around that it’s hard to do.” 

Not everyone is entirely without hope. Board member Hallam cited progress through the initiation of a monthly stipend for incarcerated individuals—initially $100 split between commissary and phone accounts, now a blanket $125 that’s also accessible for tablet use—in May of 2020. 

Meetings, she said, have changed in the past few years. The warden, for instance, issues a monthly report and no longer sits among board members. Other entities, though not at regular intervals, present additional reports—recently Erin Dalton, director of the Department of Human Services, regarding the county’s “Rethinking the Allegheny County Jail Facility” initiative.

Public interest and participation has also risen. 

ACJ Watch attributes some of the increased public awareness to social media. “This buzz of interest on Twitter has encouraged local media outlets to invest more time and energy covering issues at the jail.” 

Relatedly, Long uses social media to organize people to attend or speak at meetings. “It’s a very coordinated strategy,” she said.

What currently keeps Damick invested is that not everyone in the ACJ is convicted of a crime. “There are tons of reasons [they’re currently incarcerated]—all bad. They should not be in jail if they haven’t been found guilty.”

She points to other unnecessary reasons for incarceration. There are, for instance, people who have committed crimes out of desperation such as needing money to live. They don’t receive help like skills training or educational opportunities while in jail, nor are there enough community programs outside of it that could lead to a different situation after incarceration. She gives the example of someone who is on parole and without a job. When they don’t have the money to pay child support, they are in violation of parole, for which they go back to jail.

“Is that going to give you money to support [your kids]?” she asked. “No. It doesn’t make too much sense what we’re doing … Not only are you not helping them, you’re certainly not helping their family.”

So much of the needed reform, she said, could cost politicians their reelection and so the work doesn’t get done. If it did, though, “I don’t see everything getting perfect, I just see things hopefully getting better.” 

In that hope, she continues.

“It’s so easy to get burnt out when it comes to jail reform,” said Hallam. “It’s a never-ending thing. You fight for nutrition, and then you get it, and then people are dying. And you have to figure out how to stop people from dying. And then you implement some measures to try to prevent that from happening. And then there’s rats and rodent feces in the food.” 

Hallam and Long both hope that they won’t have to be fighting for justice reform by the time they’re in their 90s, “but,” Long said, “if she’s [97 and] still doing it, then it should inspire everybody watching to get off their butts and go do it themselves.”

Damick would like to inspire the JOB to do its job. To spur the board to action, Damick suggested a monthly report about what they’ve done since the previous meeting.

 “We’re sitting here all waiting to hear what you’ve done,” she told them in January. “I won’t live long enough. Come on. Before I die, let me hear it—something you have done. Really.” 

Marion Damick with Ira Glasser, Executive Director of the ACLU taken in 1992
photo courtesy of Marion Damick