Outside of the Allegheny County Jail building
Allegheny County Jail. (Photo by Ryan Loew/Rtvsrece)

Allegheny County has hired a consulting firm to plan an overhaul of its jail, offering a glimpse of the future as the jail’s leadership finds itself under scrutiny and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s administration nears the last of its 12 years in office.

The $700,000 contract was signed July 14 with CDI Architects, a subsidiary of TranSystems. It outlines plans for months of community engagement and an examination of how to redesign the Allegheny County Jail [ACJ] while reducing the number of people who pass through it and improving care for people in the justice system who have physical or mental health concerns. An explicit goal of the project is to reduce the jail’s population by half or more. 

In an emailed statement, Fitzgerald said his administration has “worked collaboratively and collectively to think about criminal justice in new and different ways. The [request for proposals leading to the contract] that was issued to look at how the space in the county jail can be used differently is the latest step in those efforts.” 

Fitzgerald’s spokesperson, Amie Downs, said an initial meeting with CDI is being scheduled and it’s too soon to say when work will begin or end.

In June 2021, the county released a request for proposals [RFP], seeking a consultant to help it redesign the jail to hold drastically fewer people. The county made no public announcement about the initiative and negotiations with CDI were not publicly disclosed until a Rtvsrece inquiry last month.

The RFP stated that the county was “committed to reducing reliance on incarceration” and sought a consultant to redesign the towering Uptown jail to accommodate a smaller population. The jail’s population is markedly lower than it has been during much of its 28-year history. Its population was frequently above 2,500 between 2017 and early 2020, but it has averaged 1,666 in 2022. The average population dropped sharply at the onset of the pandemic when there was a slowdown in arrests and many people were released to reduce crowding, and it has not risen since then.

The county sought proposals to reduce the jail’s capacity to between 500 and 1,100, and the plan delivered by CDI acknowledges that such a facility would not be sufficient for the number of people the county incarcerates at ACJ today.

“The success of this project rests in large part on the ongoing collaboration and active cooperation of the major players,” the plan reads, including police and the judicial branch. While the county executive manages the jail, it is the county’s many police departments that arrest people who end up there, and it is the judiciary that decides who is jailed and for how long.

Downs said the courts and the district attorney “have been involved in this process throughout,” referring to broad projects around criminal justice reform, and added that CDI would be reaching out to them.

A spokesperson for District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said they had not been contacted by the county administration about the jail redesign project. A representative for President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark did not respond to requests for comment.

Tanisha Long, a community organizer with the Abolitionist Law Center and a frequent critic of the jail, said she is concerned that the county’s RFP focused on physical changes to the jail more than changes in how the county approaches incarceration and criminal justice.

“If we’re capable of doing things such as reforming the size of the jail, then we can invest in changing the culture and safety of the jail,” said Long, who had not yet seen CDI’s plan.

Click here to view the full project plan.

The consultants’ plan calls for a process of two basic steps: examining and modeling the current state of the county’s criminal justice ecosystem, and then “Rethinking the System — the ‘Could-Be’ for the Future.” Both parts will incorporate substantial engagement with the public and community groups, the plan says.

The plan says that the “Could-Be” phase will produce a range of plans covering “reduced admissions, reduced length of stay, alternative placements, streamlined processing and improved facilities.”

A lengthy portion of the plan focuses on the medical services at the jail. The consultants’ approach: “Changing the paradigm from one of custody and control, to one of care and custody.”

A table in the contract signed by Allegheny County and CDI Architects.

Physical changes to the jail facility will be determined after the planning around services, population and other non-physical changes, the consultants wrote. There are few specifics around possible changes aside from noting that deciding how to adapt the new facility or replace it is one of the key tasks before the firm.

Advocates for people incarcerated at ACJ have harshly criticized jail management in recent years, pointing to a string of deaths in the facility, reports of inadequate food and temperatures and a lack of out-of-cell time since the pandemic began. The correctional officers’ union voted no confidence in the leadership of Warden Orlando Harper, describing a toxic work environment and alleging that short staffing is placing officers and incarcerated people in danger.

CDI will subcontract a company called The People Group to conduct community meetings. There are no specifics in the contract around what groups may be invited or encouraged to participate, but the county’s RFP directed consultants to include perspectives of those who have been incarcerated in the jail, family members of incarcerated people, correctional officers, advocates and organizations that deliver services in the jail.

Long said she is concerned that the community engagement components will “not be reflective of communities that tend to face incarceration.”

“This is an issue that always comes up,” Long said. “There is never a definition of which communities are included. Will it be reflective? Will they be community leaders or on-the-ground activists? Will they be people in positions of power or regular people?”

Corey O’Connor, the county controller and the newest member of the Jail Oversight Board, said that once the county receives a final report from CDI, there should be robust public discussion of what comes next.

“It should be done in an open forum so we can all look at where to invest, whether it be capital investments or operational, in criminal justice reform,” said O’Connor, who was appointed controller in July after the office was vacated.

A flow chart in the work plan provided by CDI Architects.

The county has done business with CDI Architects multiple times in recent years, and its former parent company, L.R. Kimball, designed the jail in the 1990s. Both entities were bought by TranSystems in 2021.

The firm listed as references several jail and prison planning projects, including Franklin and Fayette counties in Pennsylvania, the Delaware Department of Corrections and Chatham County, Georgia.

It is not clear when the work will begin, how long it will take or how quickly thereafter the recommendations will be implemented. Time estimates on each stage of the project suggest it could take anywhere from 315 to 420 days.

The impending end of the Fitzgerald administration looms over the project. The longtime county executive is term-limited and will leave office at the end of 2023, with his successor elected in November of that year. Based on the timetable outlined in the plan, it is unlikely that the results of the CDI consultancy will be implemented before he leaves office, and a new executive may interpret them differently or choose to go in a new direction.

Charlie Wolfson is Rtvsrece's local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. he can be reached at charlie@rtvsrece.com or on Twitter @chwolfson.

Know more than you did before? Support this work with a gift!

Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're proud to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.

However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.

Your donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.

Charlie Wolfson is an enterprise reporter for Rtvsrece, focusing on local government accountability in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. Charlie aims his coverage at the intersection of policy and politics,...