Allegheny County Jail improves prison release measures

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Inmate Scott Stepp knows it used to be easier to leave the old Allegheny County Jail on Ross Street than it was to leave its replacement on Second Avenue.

But that's not an accident. For decades, the jail let released inmates leave haphazardly -- often in the middle of the night with nowhere to go -- after a judge approved their release.

For the past two years, the jail has been using a more orderly system that releases inmates through the Discharge and Release Center within 48 hours after a judge has approved them for release. The system, which got favorable reviews in a report released by the county last week, gives inmates a chance to let family know when they will be released and allows jail personnel to make sure they get money, medication and any social service referrals they need after they leave.

Admittedly, not all inmates are thrilled with any delay to leaving the jail, but the new system provides an "orderly, known, planned process," said Claire A. Walker, retired executive director of the Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation, who pushed for the changes through the Allegheny County Jail Collaborative. The collaborative began more than 10 years ago to review jail procedures and make recommendations for improvements.

The hope is that by giving inmates a chance to talk with family and releasing them between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. with a little money, appropriate clothing and a bus ticket or shelter reservation if they need it, they will have a better transition into the community.

"You've got to give people a chance," said Ms. Walker. "It's common sense to let someone make a phone call before they are just let go, and make sure they have any medication they need, but it just wasn't being done."

In the past, inmates would be released by court order "forthwith," which meant as soon as the jail got all the paperwork it needed from the court and checked for any other outstanding warrants or other reasons to keep someone. As a result, the period between 2 and 4 a.m. was the second most popular time for release, and inmates often were sent to the street with no transportation and no opportunity to stay at a shelter because they were already full. If they came to jail in the summer wearing shorts and flip-flops, that's the way they were released in January.

In many instances, they would commit another crime just so they could survive until the next morning.

After interviewing inmates and their families to identify the problem, Ms. Walker said, the collaborative worked with social services, jail administration, jail health services and the county court system to revamp the release system. She said officials were "aghast" when they learned the details of how and when inmates were released.

Now, the court orders say inmates will be released within 48 hours, giving staff time to make at least rudimentary arrangements.

Discharge and release coordinators Ronelle Thomas and Asia Pruden get a list of 25 to 40 inmates for release every day. They begin by contacting the inmate in the cell block and asking a series of questions to determine what needs they might have when they get out, including transportation, housing and medication.

Then they work to make appropriate arrangements, sometimes calling family. Once everything is in place, groups of inmates dressed in street clothes come to the basement discharge center, where they receive any money, medications, belongings and a bus ticket if they need it before they are released.

As opposed to the rather drab cell blocks managed by uniformed guards, the discharge center is known as "the happy place" with bright walls and staff in civilian clothes to process the inmates for release. But that doesn't mean there isn't tension there.

During a visit last week, several inmates questioned why they weren't released sooner and another was upset that a radio he had when arrested couldn't be located. Ms. Thomas and Ms. Pruden patiently explained why their release took a bit of time and Capt. Demont Coleman maintained order.

"They are like race horses ready to go. They have no tolerance," said Capt. Coleman, who has been at the jail for 25 years and overseeing discharge since December.

"We have to balance (their interest in leaving as soon as possible) with the things they need when they get out. But short of them committing another crime while they are waiting, we can't do anything to hold them."

Dana Phillips, who heads the jail's medical operations, said she believes preparations provided through the discharge center have caused positive changes after some growing pains as staff bought into the new procedures.

"This gives us a really good way to make sure everybody gets their medications and everything else they need," she said. "It's a big step forward."

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Ed Blazina: or 412-263-1470.


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