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Allegheny County Jail.jpg

(Katie Blackley/WESA)

The failure of a water heater at the Allegheny County Jail this week has brought a county election fight to a simmer – and may lead to increased scrutiny of the facility going forward.

A hot-water system mounted on the jail’s roof failed Monday afternoon, leaving inmates on five of the jail’s eight floors without hot water for showers. Jail officials say a repair will take place this weekend, but in the meantime imposed a modified lockdown.

That upset Bethany Hallam, who is running for the Democratic “at-large” seat on Allegheny County Council, and who appeared at Thursday’s monthly gathering of the Jail Oversight Board.  

The lockdown, she said, meant that “children are not able to visit their parents. Educational services [are] being taken away from inmates” along with other services. “Why are we punishing inmates for something that they had nothing to do with?”

Hallam, who herself spent several months in the jail for drug-related offenses, said that during her time there she took “dozens of freezing cold showers, as did everyone else who was housed in the county jail,” with no lockdown imposed.

Hallam noted that the jail population included many people awaiting trial “who are sitting there simply because they did not have the money to be able to post bail.” They and non-violent offenders “are being treated inhumanely, as if being incarcerated is not punishment enough.”

Warden Orlando Harper said a valve in the water system had to be repaired, and that it couldn’t be fixed until outside temperatures reached 45 degrees. That is expected to happen this weekend, and he said a vendor would be on hand to make repairs.

In the meantime, Harper said, jail staff devised a plan to get the 1,500 inmates housed on the lower floors to the top three floors on the jail, which still has hot water they could use to shower with. The concern, Harper said, was that as inmates circulated through the jail, “a fight would ensue, and therefore I would be reporting to my superiors an assault.

“The lockdown was to protect the inmates that were being transported,” he said. “My primary responsibility is the safety and security of the ACJ. So that is why the jail was locked down.”

Harper called the circumstances unprecedented.

“This unroutine occurrence that just happened today … is something I’ve never done in my 31 years of being a correctional professional.”

Other jail board members seemed content with that explanation, though Terri Klein asked whether inmates were still being allowed to meet with their lawyers. Harper said they were, an assertion supported by a defense attorney who spoke with 90.5 WESA.

After the meeting, Klein said, she was “relieved to hear that attorney visits are not affected.”

“I’m not an expert on jail security,” she said, “so I have to defer to those whose job it is to ensure the safety of people who work and are housed at the ACJ.”

Over the years, the jail has been at the center of a number of controversies related to issues like suicide prevention, treatment of pregnant and transgender inmates, and inmate healthcare. But Thursday’s meeting may mark the first time that conditions at the facility have emerged as campaign issue.

Prior to the oversight board meeting, Hallam released a joint statement with two other county council candidates, Christine Allen and Olivia Bennett, calling on Harper to “end the modified lockdown or else explain why he believes it is necessary to cancel visitation and educational services.”

“Incarcerated people being forced to remain on any kind of lockdown because of infrastructure failings is appalling,” Bennett said in the statement.

Hallam in particular has put her own stint in the jail – for a probation violation related to an opioid addiction – front and center of a bid to replace John DeFazio on council. She has pledged to examine and reform jail practices

In his capacity as county council president, DeFazio is a member of the Jail Oversight Board. He looked steadily down at the table while Hallam spoke, and later asked Harper how long it would take for all the inmates to get showers.

Hallam wasn’t the only critic to attend Thursday’s meeting. Activist Ciora Thomas was one of a pair of  activists who lambasted Harper for conditions at the jail, as well as its handling of transgender inmates. Thomas, who also sharply criticized jail operations at a meeting last fall, pledged to return at future meetings, where she said she will press for demands that include a special protective unit for transgender prisoners and the firing of Harper himself.

Klein said that public interest in oversight board meetings waxed and waned. As to whether she’d ever seen a board meeting attract interest in the context of a political campaign, “I’d have to think about that.”