Justin Lamb, 28, of Tarentum, died in October after two months in the custody at Allegheny County Jail.
By Rich Lord and Molly Born / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Death rates at the Allegheny County Jail remain above national norms more than a year after a new medical vendor was charged with cutting costs and improving care.
Six people have died while in county custody this year, according to county officials. With an average inmate count of around 2,400, the mortality rate of 1 in 400 is higher than average for local lockups nationally and statewide.
“Every life is important, but each [death] has a different reason,” county manager William McKain said Monday.
He said the mortality rate — which is above that seen in most prior years — could be related to the characteristics of Allegheny County’s inmate population.
Among the deaths: Justin Lamb, 28, of Tarentum, who died in October, two months after he was jailed. Family and friends said he entered jail showing no signs of ill health, and was kept there until he turned yellow with jaundice and his defense attorney demanded that he be hospitalized.
County officials declined to talk about specific cases, citing medical privacy laws and the possibility of litigation.
County Controller Chelsa Wagner is expected to release an audit of the jail’s infirmary Monday.
Jail health care was handled for more than a decade by a nonprofit arm of the county Health Department. The jail averaged around five deaths per year, or 1 per 500 inmates.
That compares with national averages of 1 per 800 in local lockups and 1 per 700 in Pennsylvania jails, according to federal Bureau of Justice Statistics data.
Warden Orlando Harper said that when he took that job in 2012, he “noticed that a lot of the inmates, to me, were overly medicated. … There were a lot of outside medical trips” to hospitals, which he said were both expensive and risky.
Inmate health care in 2012 cost $12.9 million, up from $6.9 million in 2003, Mr. McKain said.
Following a competitive process, the Tennessee-based firm Corizon took over jail health care duties in September 2013, replacing the nonprofit Allegheny Correctional Health Services. The county paid Corizon $11.5 million for its first year running the infirmary.
County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said then that he hoped Corizon would save money and improve care.
Mr. Harper called it a “rocky transition,” confirming that there have been problems distributing medicine and frictions with the U.S. Marshals Service, which periodically houses some federal inmates in the jail. He said the transitional problems have been resolved.
Corizon was not available for an interview, but emailed its response to the controller’s audit. In the statement, the company said it has made improvements including: providing nursing staffing above contract requirements, at its own expense; enhancing clinical services in the infirmary; and implementing new disease-management tools and infection control protocols.
So far, the change has not reduced inmate deaths in Allegheny County.
Inmate deaths totaled five each in 2009 and 2010, two in 2011, seven in 2012, none in 2013 and six this year.
Mr. Lamb, who had an on-and-off narcotics problem, was charged in the 2013 robbery of a gasoline station. He was released pretrial but jailed again Aug. 25, when officers said they found drug paraphernalia in his home.
Family and friends said he showed no signs of illness prior to that arrest.
In mid-September Mr. Lamb “started calling me and telling me that he wasn’t feeling good and his stomach was swelling,” said his father, Terry Lamb of Kill Devil Hills, N.C.
In late September, Justin Lamb’s attorney, Jeffrey Weinberg, visited the jail. “They call him out from the pod, the kid is yellow,” said Mr. Weinberg. He said he threatened to sue the guards.
On Oct. 6, Corizon sent Mr. Lamb to UPMC Mercy, citing jaundice. He died there Oct. 24, diagnosed with metastasized pancreatic cancer.
“He was a really good dad,” said Angela Staley, who was engaged to Mr. Lamb before he was jailed, and with whom he had two children, ages 3 and 1. “I know it’s going to be hard having to explain to them what happened when they’re older.”
Alexander Podomik, then 58, of Arlington was jailed in March, charged with attempted homicide, aggravated assault, rape and related charges. A partial amputee with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, he started having trouble breathing but could not get medicine, according to a family member who asked not to be named.
Mr. Podomik’s attorney pushed for nominal bond, so he could get out of jail and get treatment. He died of pneumonia, though, three days prior to a hearing at which medical records and arguments would likely have been presented.
Phillip J. Busa, 63, died in April, three weeks after he was jailed awaiting trial on charges of harassment and indecent exposure.
Charlie W. Johnson, 46, of Swissvale died in February, a month after he pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and recklessly endangering another person and was given four to nine years in prison.
Both were ruled as natural deaths by the Allegheny County medical examiner’s office.
Michelle Thompson, 61, of the Mount Oliver area died the day after her guilty plea. The manner of death is still pending.
James Roak, 29, also of the Mount Oliver area, died of methadone toxicity, according to the county. Like the other inmates, he was transferred from jail to a hospital before he died.
The jail’s mortality rate was long heightened by an unusual number of suicides. Following the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s reporting on jail suicides in 2011, the Health Department issued recommendations for intensive training for corrections officers; better communication of guilty pleas or sentencings that spur desperation; better screening of new arrivals for mental health or drug problems; and closer watch over at-risk inmates and those in disciplinary housing.
Mr. Harper said he was unaware of the recommendations but said there have been no suicides on his watch.