Activists Call On Fitzgerald To Fire County Jail Warden Harper

Sep 2, 2015

Tomi Lynn Harris is flanked by activists with the Allegheny County Jail Health Justice Project in the courthouse courtyard Tuesday afternoon. Her son, Frank Smart, died at the jail in January.
Credit Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA

Activists with the Allegheny County Jail Health Justice Project on Tuesday delivered a petition with more than 1,700 signatures to County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s office, asking him to fire County Jail Warden Orlando Harper.

Activists maintain that Harper — and Fitzgerald — are ultimately responsible for the death rate at the jail, which in 2014 was more than twice the national average at seven deaths. Four inmates have died at the jail so far this year, including Frank Smart, whose mother, Tomi Lynn Harris, spoke at a rally outside the county courthouse.

“We need to overhaul what goes on in the Allegheny County Jail. We need to hold the person at the top (accountable) when things go wrong,” Harris said. “If you don’t hold the person at the top (accountable) when things go wrong, the people at the bottom just scatter like roaches when the light is turned on.”

Harris said Smart died after being denied anti-seizure medication, and that his seizures were mistaken for aggressive behavior which led corrections officers to physically restrain him. She said she has not heard an explanation from jail officials or Fitzgerald about why her son died in custody. Smart was arrested for allegedly purchasing Steelers tickets with counterfeit bills and for alleged possession of marijuana.

Fitzgerald announced in May that he would not renew the county’s contract with jail healthcare provider Corizon when it expired at the end of August. As of Tuesday, the county is partnering with Allegheny Health Network to provide healthcare, at a cost of $2 million to $3 million more than the previous contract.

But activists said that’s not enough, and they want to see Harper removed from his post, which he has held for nearly three years. He is makes an annual salary of $102,000.

James Tedrow, a filmmaker and prison justice advocate, cited a December 2014 audit of the jail's health care provider Corizon from Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner.

“The No. 1 finding in the audit was, and I quote ‘The jail’s monitoring and enforcement of the contract with Corizon has not been sufficient,’” he said. “And who was specified of the person responsible for enforcement of the contract? Warden Orlando Harper.”

The audit found that the responsibility for monitoring the contract was delegated by Harper to one of his deputy wardens, and that the first monitoring report was not issued until January 17, 2014, more than four months after the contract with Corizon began.

The trade magazine Modern Healthcare reported in April that Corizon has lost contracts with correctional facilities in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Tennessee and New York since 2012. The magazine reported that Corizon along with Alameda County in California settled a wrongful death lawsuit to the tune of $8.3 million after an inmate died under Corizon’s care.

Activist Julia Johnson said county leadership should have pulled the plug on Corizon long ago, and that they are ultimately responsible for the deaths at the jail.

“The Jail Oversight Board, County Council and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald have allowed this crisis to develop, and (when) confronted with demands from the public and victims of their neglect to act, they pointed the finger at Corizon or each other,” she said.

County spokesperson Amie Downs said Warden Harper continues "to have the full faith and confidence of the administration and will remain in place at the Allegheny County Jail." She said the county's stance on Harper's employment has repeatedly been made clear to members of the Allegheny County Jail Health Justice Project.