Heidelbaugh: County Should Fix Jail Health Care Problems 'Yesterday'

Jun 3, 2015

Allegheny County Councilwoman Heather Heidelbaugh (left) speaks with Tomi Lynn Harris (center) and Julia Johnson after the Council meeting Tuesday evening. Harris's son, Frank Smart, died at the county jail in January.
Credit Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA

Allegheny County Councilwoman Heather Heidelbaugh said she will call for a public hearing on the status of health care at the county jail.

The move is in response to efforts of prison justice activists and family members of those who have been or are currently incarcerated at the jail.

Tomi Lynn Harris’s son Frank Smart died at the jail in January. She told Council at their Tuesday meeting that he died because he was denied anti-seizure medication.

“Everyone acts like this subject is taboo,” Harris said. “I lost a whole child about two pills. Two pills that he begged for when he came in, begged for when he was there … That’s being neglected. My son should still be here.”

After two more inmates died at the jail last month – bringing the total number of deaths this year to four – the county announced it would sever ties with private health care provider Corizon when the contract expires in August.

Activist Julia Johnson with New Voices Pittsburgh and the Allegheny County Jail Health Justice Project said that’s not soon enough, calling the situation “a human rights violation crisis.”

“In the months between now and August that the Corizon contract is going to be ushered out, there are still people suffering at the jail," Johnson said. “We are calling on all of our representatives to act immediately and intervene on behalf of all the people suffering at the jail and their loved ones.”

Johnson’s group has held multiple protests around the issue, and she said family members had approached activists about other inmates not receiving medications, “everything from still seizure medication to their anti-psychotic medicine that they have not received for months.”

Heidelbaugh agreed with Johnson that the county should not wait until August to make changes at the jail.

“If there are people who are dying in the jail, we need to fix it yesterday,” Heidelbaugh said.

Johnson said blame for the deaths falls not only on Corizon, but also on Warden Orlando Harper and correctional officers, who she alleges are “actually intervening and stopping medicine from being dispensed, who are stopping nurses from doing their jobs.”

Harris said she has repeatedly brought her concerns to the Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board, and that chair Common Pleas Judge Joseph K. Williams III was disrespectful toward her at those meetings.

“He talks to me like I’m an animal … barks at me,” Harris said. “Is that how the (board) is supposed to work? I’m there for solutions. I want to find out what happened to my son.”

The oversight board is scheduled to hold its next meeting on Thursday at 4 p.m. in Judge Williams’ chambers at the Allegheny County Courthouse.

Seven inmates died at the jail in 2014. Corizon took over health care at the jail in late 2013.