Allegheny County hires a consultant to plan the prison’s transformation
Allegheny County has hired a consulting firm to plan an overhaul of its prison and look ahead as the prison’s governance comes under scrutiny and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s administration nears the last of his 12 years in office.
The $700,000 contract was signed on July 14 with CDI Architects, a TranSystems subsidiary. It outlines plans for months of community engagement and an examination of the Allegheny County Jail redesign [ACJ] At the same time, the number of people going through it will be reduced and the care of people in the justice system with physical or mental health problems will be improved. An explicit goal of the project is to reduce the prison population by half or more.
In an emailed statement, Fitzgerald said his administration has “worked cooperatively and collectively to think about criminal justice in new and different ways. That [request for proposals leading to the contract] issued to explore how space in the county jail could be repurposed is the latest step in that effort.”
Fitzgerald spokeswoman Amie Downs said an initial meeting with CDI is planned and it is too early to say when work will begin or end.
In June 2021, the county issued a call for proposals [RFP], looking for a counselor to help him remodel the prison to hold drastically fewer people. The county made no public announcement about the initiative, and negotiations with CDI were not publicly announced until a public source investigation last month.
The RFP said the county was “committed to reducing dependency on incarceration” and was seeking a consultant to remodel the towering Uptown Prison to accommodate a smaller population. The prison’s population is significantly lower than it has been for much of its 28-year history. The population often exceeded 2,500 between 2017 and early 2020, but averaged 1,666 in 2022. The average population fell sharply early in the pandemic as arrests eased and many people were released to reduce crowding, and the case has not increased since.
The county sought proposals to reduce the prison’s capacity to between 500 and 1,100, and the plan presented by CDI recognizes that such a facility would not suffice for the number of people the county is incarcerating at the ACJ today.
“The success of this project relies in large part on the ongoing collaboration and active collaboration of key stakeholders,” the plan reads, including the police and judiciary. While the county government administers the prison, it is the county’s many police departments that arrest the people who end up there, and the judiciary decides who is held and for how long.
Downs said the courts and district attorney “have been involved in this process throughout the process,” citing broad criminal justice reform projects, adding that CDI will be reaching out to them.
A spokesman for District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said they were not contacted by the county administration about the prison redesign project. A representative for President Justice Kim Berkeley Clark did not respond to requests for comment.
Tanisha Long, a community organizer at the Abolitionist Law Center and a frequent critic of the prison, said she is concerned that the county’s RFP has focused more on physical changes to the prison than changes in the county’s approach to incarceration and criminal justice.
“If we’re able to do things like reform the size of the prison, then we can invest in changing the culture and security of the prison,” said Long, who had yet to see CDI’s plan.
The consultants’ plan envisages a two-step process: examining and modeling the current state of the county’s criminal justice ecosystem, and then “rethinking the system – the ‘coulds’ for the future.” Both parts will involve significant engagement with the public and community groups, the plan says.
The plan says the “Could-Be” phase will produce a series of plans that include “reduced admissions, shortened length of stay, alternative placements, streamlined processing and improved facilities.”
A large part of the plan focuses on the prison’s medical services. The consultants’ approach: “Paradigm shift from custody and control to care and custody.”
Physical changes to the prison facility will be determined after planning services, population and other non-physical changes, the consultants wrote. Details on possible changes are few, apart from the fact that the decision on how to adapt or replace the new facility is one of the most important tasks before the company.
Advocates of people incarcerated at the ACJ have slammed the prison administration in recent years, citing a spate of deaths at the facility, reports of inadequate food and temperatures and a lack of time outside cells since the pandemic began. The Correctional Officers’ Union expressed no confidence in Warden Orlando Harper’s leadership, describing a toxic work environment and claiming understaffing put officers and inmates at risk.
CDI will hire a company called The People Group to host community meetings. There are no details in the contract about which groups may be invited or encouraged to participate, but the county’s RFP directed counselors to include the perspectives of those who were incarcerated in prison, family members of inmates, correctional officials, attorneys and organizations involved do this provide services in prison.
Long said she was concerned that the community engagement components “do not reflect the communities that tend to face incarceration.”
“It’s a problem that keeps coming up,” Long said. “There is never a definition of which communities are included. Will it be reflective? Will they be community leaders or local activists? Will it be people in positions of power or ordinary people?”
Corey O’Connor, the county controller and the newest member of the Jail Oversight Board, said once the county receives a final report from CDI, there should be solid public discussion about what comes next.
“This should be done in an open forum so that we can all consider where we can invest in criminal justice reform, whether it be capital investments or operational actions,” said O’Connor, who was appointed controller in July after the office was vacated became.
The district has done business with CDI Architects on a number of occasions in recent years, and its former parent company, LR Kimball, designed the prison in the 1990s. Both companies were bought by TranSystems in 2021.
The firm listed several prison and prison planning projects as references, including Franklin and Fayette Counties in Pennsylvania, the Delaware Department of Corrections, and Chatham County, Georgia.
It is not clear when the work will start, how long it will take, or how soon after that the recommendations will be implemented. Time estimates for each phase of the project suggest it could take anywhere from 315 to 420 days.
The imminent end of the Fitzgerald administration looms over the project. The long-serving district executive is on a temporary basis and will step down at the end of 2023, with his successor being elected in November of the same year. Based on the timeline outlined in the plan, the findings of the CDI consultation are unlikely to be implemented prior to his departure from office, and a new leader may interpret them differently or decide on a new direction.
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