Spending doubles on illnesses at Allegheny County jail
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There's no shortage of sick people in Allegheny County Jail. Just ask the guys who drive them around.
The county spent almost twice as much overtime pay to guard prisoners in hospitals in 2012 as it did the year before, a trend Sheriff William Mullen says is forcing him to pull deputies off the streets for baby-sitting duty.
By law, prisoners at the county jail must be supervised while they undergo medical treatment outside the jail. That means a sheriff's deputy or correctional officer must sit in the same room, even if the patient is sleeping.
In 2012, the sheriff's office spent $480,000 in overtime to guard prisoners undergoing treatment, Sheriff Mullen said. That was up from $245,000 in 2011.
"It's tearing up our budget," the sheriff said. "We have to pull from other squads to make ends meet."
Why? Officials say the jail is sending more and more patients to UPMC Mercy and other hospitals instead of treating them at the jail's infirmary, even for minor illnesses and injuries. What's more, doctors frequently summon prisoners to their offices for follow-up exams instead of visiting them in the jail.
Some days, a dozen prisoners or more undergo treatment at the hospital. And then there are the jail's "frequent flyers," the inmates who always seem to be falling ill. Sheriff Mullen could even recall one occasion when a female prisoner was taken to the hospital for morning sickness -- when she wasn't pregnant.
The issue has caught the attention of county Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who said bringing down guard duty costs is "something we need to continue to work on."
"Some of this could be done cheaper in-house if we bring the health care to the jail," he said. "That's something the warden is looking into."
Warden Orlando Harper said he was working with Sheriff Mullen but wouldn't comment further.
The jail has a troubled record on medical care. Allegheny Correctional Health Services, a nonprofit formed in 2000 to run jail medical facilities, paid out $650,000 along with the county to settle civil suits after two prisoners died of pneumonia and fatigue in 2005.
Last year, the county paid a $50,000 settlement after a prisoner died of heart disease in 2006. Jail officials had ignored his complaints of numbness, a lawsuit alleged.
Since the settlements, jail officials have been quick to send prisoners to the hospital instead of treating them at the infirmary.
In 2011, the jail recorded 146 prisoner hospital stays of one day or more. While the jail couldn't provide figures for 2012, officials in the sheriff's office have their own count: 215 hospital visits.
Prisoners also are staying in the hospital longer, said Lt. Tom Carter, who manages courthouse operations and prisoner transportation for the sheriff's office. All the while, a deputy stands on watch.
The sheriff's office has tried to juggle deputies to minimize overtime, but that's a tough task during the winter holiday season and the middle of summer, when more prisoners report in sick.
"We're pulling people from everywhere, and it's starting to affect the operations of the other divisions," Lt. Carter said.
This doesn't have to be his problem. For a while, the sheriff considered the jail's offer to assign correctional officers to supervise prisoners, putting his own men back on regular duty.
But because of a contract clause requiring two correctional officers for supervision duty -- only one deputy is used -- his approval would have required hiring 40 more guards. Sheriff Mullen said no.
"It would have cost the county more," he said. "If we can spend less money, everyone will be happy."
First Published February 13, 2013 12:00 am