Allegheny County jail care woes continue

Nurses tasked with medicating nearly 700 inmates per shift at the infirmary at the Allegheny County Jail are not sleeping at night due to "trepidation" over facing their daily workload, their colleagues testified Thursday before the county's Jail Oversight Board.

Board members said they want to form a subcommittee to examine staffing concerns and questions about inmate care arising after Corizon Health Inc. took over management of the infirmary Sept. 1.

Common Pleas Judge Joseph K. Williams III -- presiding over the meeting in the absence of Judge Donna Jo McDaniel, board president and Common Pleas judge -- said county officers, board members and Corizon officials could "put their heads together" and come up with strategies to present at the board's next meeting, scheduled for September. He said he believes Judge McDaniel intends to have these discussions over the summer.

"This is the third time I've been here, and I've heard innuendo that care is being compromised," Judge Williams said. "I'm not interested in Corizon's philosophy of care. I'm interested in dealing with the reduction in staff and smaller inventory of drugs available."

Two nurses at the infirmary, Teresa Latham and Sister Barbara Finch, said nurses dispensing medication are responsible for six or seven pods apiece, each of which includes 100 inmates. Because nurses do not pre-pour the medication, they said, rounds are considerably arduous and time-consuming.

Corizon officials presented board members with a health services report detailing improvements in intake procedure and pre-screening. Jail medical director Michael Patterson said doctors are working with the Allegheny County Health Department to develop more comprehensive screenings for sexually transmitted infections. Currently the infirmary only screens based on symptoms presented. That practice may miss a portion of the jail's "high-risk population," he said.

Dr. Patterson added that a persistent concern is the long waiting list for referral for psychiatric care at Torrance State Hospital. Close to 20 inmates are currently awaiting mental health treatment at the state hospital, though that number has recently been as high as 30 or 40, Corizon officials said.

Though Corizon's mental health director recently resigned, the Tennessee-based firm is looking for a replacement, officials said. They also reassured board members that a mental health nurse is available at the jail even off-shift and during weekends.

"Recruitment is not the same as hiring," Marion Damick, the Pittsburgh representative of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, said in frustration.

Board member Claire Walker, former executive director of the Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation, thanked Corizon officials for the report, saying the level of attention and transparency was "so much better" than when the for-profit firm first took over last fall.

No mention was made at Thursday's meeting of the suspension of five jail guards following an incident in which an employee entered the jail with a personal handgun. Ms. Walker said personnel issues are the province of jail management, not the oversight board.

Isaac Stanley-Becker:, 412-263-3775 or on Twitter @isb_isaac.

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