COVID-19, Rodents, Unpaid Labor: A Year In The Allegheny County Jail Kitchen
By Brittany Hailer
In many ways, the kitchen is the heartbeat of the Allegheny County Jail.
Forty workers at a time prepare food for more than 1,600 hungry men and women. Standing shoulder to shoulder, they transfer meatballs, applesauce and peas to trays, then load those trays to a big cart and send them up in the elevator. Pantry workers walk the halls, pods, and corridors to deliver that food to their neighbors’ cell door. Hands pass trays and cartons of milk. Bodies bump into each other behind the kitchen line. Workers feed empty trays to a giant dishwasher nicknamed “The Beast” and the process starts over again.
Every man and woman working to feed their neighbors inside the jail is working for free.
The workplace has been at the center of numerous COVID outbreaks at the jail. Over the past year, when the unpaid workers get sick, the kitchen slows to a crawl and falls behind. For those incarcerated, food service and quality is somehow worse than it was pre-COVID. The whole jail suffers.
Kitchen workers interviewed for this story said that food quality, unsafe working conditions, and unsanitary work practices partially stems from the jail’s contract with companies like Summit Food Service [and Trinity Services Group before that], but ultimately, they said the blame falls on the jail administration’s lack of overall management.
The jail’s first infected incarcerated person was a worker in the kitchen in April 2020, according to incarcerated persons, former employees and a federal class action lawsuit.
Since March 2020, the jail’s kitchen staff has weathered COVID-19 outbreaks, quarantines, unsanitary working conditions, poor food quality and workers quitting or walking out on the job. The county did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
This story tracks the year-long pandemic at the Allegheny County Jail kitchen.
Rodents and roaches, unsanitary conditions
Judith White, 34, works about 12 hours a day without compensation in order to avoid being locked in her cell. She’s been working in the jail since before the pandemic, but said she’s kept her job and her mental health. She said much of the jail population is suffering after over 365 days in lockdown.
White said some of her duties include wiping down dirty trays in the morning and delivering breakfast to her neighbors. The food cart she pushes is often filled with roaches. She said correctional Officers are afraid of the food cart and keep their distance when it is rolled onto the pod.
“We just go door to door, I carry 15 trays at a time,” White said. “There’s a rat the size of a cat down in the kitchen. There’s so many roaches it’s not unusual to see an albino roach. When the roaches come up in the cart—the guards will run—they won’t even want to deal with it. There’s black mold. You don’t even want to eat. If you’ve got enough sense, you check the water before you drink it.”
White says she’s been working so long, she doesn’t know how to stop. It’s her normal. White also suspects that she’s been infected with COVID-19 twice over the past year. “I had migraines for days,” she said. Incentives like an extra food tray were big motivators to work, but now, the food quality is so poor, White no longer wants to eat: “It’s stuff you wouldn’t even feed your dog.”
According to White, officers threaten women workers with DHU—the Disciplinary Housing Unit, a common corrections term for solitary confinement—if they do not work or clean properly.
“The captain has threatened us with DHU. They’re going hard on us. We’re getting reprimanded for things we didn’t do. We should just quit. I’ve been working August 2019. I feel like I never sleep,” White said.
“It’s disgusting. I didn’t think it could get worse, but it’s worse than it was before,” said Michael Kieselka, 49, currently housed at the jail. He’s been working in the kitchen since before July 2020. He’s also in remission for cancer.
“I get down there around 5 a.m. and I am there until 1 p.m.. Well, I mean it’s 23 and one. That’s pretty much the only reason I work. I don’t eat nothing they share on the tray line. It’s nasty. It ain’t sanitary for a kitchen. I wouldn’t want none of my family eating off the trays, or any of the food that comes out there. There’s a mouse problem, roaches. Everybody knows that.”
Kieselka said he sees rodents and cockroaches every day he works in the kitchen.
Richard Arrington, dubbed “The Mayor” of the Allegheny County Jail because of his friendliness to both officers and fellow incarcerated persons, was recently released. He worked in the kitchen throughout the pandemic because he said it would keep him from getting depressed in lockdown.
“I have depression, when it kicks in, I feel really hostile. I used prayer. I used poetry. I used working. You try to find whatever alternative you can,” Arrington said.
When he walked the halls to deliver food, he’d slip the poems he’d written to his neighbors.
“You have to check on people, see if they’re alright. That’s something we try to do, because you don’t know what someone goes through.”
Arrington, too, described cockroaches in the kitchen.
“If you take a look at your thumb, they’ve got cockroaches the size of your thumb down there. Some bigger,” he said.
Arrington worked in the bakery, preparing cakes and bread as early as 4 am. Workers and managers did not clean or wipe down countertops. “They got straight to it,” according to Arrington.
“You’d figure when you start cooking breakfast, you’d make sure your line was completely sanitized. They don’t do that. You know no one has been down there in several hours and there’s rats, roaches, and mice running all over the place.”
Arrington called the kitchen “frightful.” He started filing grievances over sanitary conditions and his COVID concerns in the kitchen. In September 2020, Arrington requested an exterminator. “There are roaches, mice and rats in the baking area,” he wrote, “[I was] exposed two or three times in my shift. There needs to be an exterminator called as soon as possible. Just asking for the issue to be taken care of.”
Unsanitary conditions, lack of mitigation during COVID-19 Pandemic
Despite the litany of grievances and the federal complaint he filed, Arrington did eventually contract COVID-19 in December 2020. Now, when he’s on the phone, he wheezes and apologizes for his cough. He feels lucky to be alive, he says, but worries every day for the other kitchen workers and incarcerated persons inside the jail.
Before his release, Arrington filed a grievance on January 21, 2021 addressing Warden Orlando Harper directly, “Warden Harper [sacrificed] my health while working in the kitchen by not applying proper COVID-19 regulations … I still suffer lasting effects from Covid and will be seeking monetary value for my pain and suffering, for the neglect of protecting workers in the kitchen.”
verett Dixon, 31, currently housed at the ACJ, quit working in the kitchen because he said it was filthy. He feared contracting COVID and said “The Beast,” the giant washing machine fed hundreds of food trays a day, wasn’t working. Trays were still caked with old food after going through The Beast. Dixon walked out.
His story was among sworn court declarations filed against the Allegheny County Jail. A declaration is a written statement submitted to a court. The writer swears ‘under penalty of perjury’ that the contents are true–acknowledging that they may be prosecuted for perjury if they lie in their statement.
According to one sworn statement by an incarcerated person at the ACJ, “On April 24, 2020, I learned that these trays, which the inmates infected with COVID-19 had touched, likely entered the kitchen and that these trays were not disinfected before the inmate workers touched them with their bare hands.”
This person reported his concerns to the kitchen manager. He ultimately quit his job because he felt the jail was not taking measures to prevent the spread of COVID. “I was concerned that if I continued to work in the kitchen, then I would contract COVID-19. I didn’t want to risk spreading the coronavirus to the inmates and staff at the Jail,” he said.
Other incarcerated persons reported workers touching trays with their bare hands, and those hands pass other hands throughout the facility.
“For example, when the used trays entered the kitchen, two sets of inmates handled them,” another incarcerated person testified,“The first set of inmates dumped remaining food off the trays, then they passed them to a second set of inmates who stacked the trays, then a third set of inmates pushed the trays down the line, where a fourth set of inmates fed the trays into a machine.”
Another incarcerated person submitted a declaration to the district court in June 2020 stating that the machine used to clean and disinfect the trays did not work properly. The water wasn’t hot enough to sanitize.
He echoed Dixon’s account –The Beast was too broken to remove old food.
“As of May 25, 2020, the Jail was still using this machine,” according to his declaration, “Around the week of May 11, 2020, we prepared about 1,800 meal trays three times a day.”
The Allegheny County Health Department Food Safety Assessment Report from February 2021 cited the jail’s dishwasher as a “high risk” violation: “Dishwasher in the Officer Dining Room was not sanitizing. Plate surface temperature measured was 140° F. Dishwasher in the main kitchen was being serviced during the inspection and it’s function could not be verified by the inspector. The current operator stated that the unit is frequently in need of service.”
The health department cited the jail for seven violations, among them, the kitchen lacked hot water and the jail was in violation for waste water disposal, cleaning and sanitation, plumbing and water supply.
The health department returned to the kitchen for reinspection in April 2021 and cited the jail for more violations, 14 this time, including, “Rodent droppings observed in the corners of the walk-in cooler” and “Rodent droppings observed beneath the shelves of the paper goods and equipment storage room.”
The department returned to the kitchen again for reinspection in that same month and cited the jail for six violations. Most violations were corrected during inspection and no rodent droppings were observed. Excessive steam from the ventilation hood causing condensation was the only violation not resolved by the end of the inspection.
Infection spreads from the kitchen, workers quarantined
Interviews, internal jail emails and court documents show that infections began on the kitchen food line, then spread to the housing units where the workers live.
The jail’s first infected incarcerated person was a worker in the kitchen in April 2020, according to court declarations as well as federal lawsuit Graham v. Allegheny County filed by the Abolitionist Law Center.
“I actually saw that patient,” Charles Timbers told the Current. A former nurse practitioner at Allegheny County Jail, Timbers said, “And yes, he worked in the kitchen. He had come to see me in my office and he had very vague symptoms. Then he developed a fever and his symptoms became more dramatic.”
Timbers said the jail didn’t test the patient for a week; he continued to work in the kitchen with 40 other workers during that time. Maskless.
“I didn’t have my mask on when I examined him. So we hadn’t gotten into wearing masks, yet,” said Timbers.
After testing positive, the worker was fired and transferred to a general population housing unit 3B. His symptoms worsened. Days after his arrival, there was an outbreak. At that time, according to court testimony in Connelly v. Allegheny County, Deputy Laura Williams was overriding jail nurse practitioner Jodi Lynch’s decisions to test suspected COVID-19 infected persons.
In July 2020, the entire kitchen staff was tested because one worker became symptomatic. More workers tested positive and the staff went on quarantine.Then, in December 2020, another COVID-19 outbreak flared in the kitchen—over 20 workers tested positive. When those workers were quarantined, men housed on units 2B and 2C replaced them. Shortly thereafter, those housing units erupted with COVID cases.
The witness explained that most of the incarcerated persons who work in ACJ’s kitchen are housed together on pod 2A, often called ‘the kitchen workers pod.’
“While I have been confined at ACJ, there have been several outbreaks of COVID-19 on the kitchen workers’ pod 2A and the pods with inmates who replaced the infected kitchen workers. This includes the recent outbreaks that occurred around December 2020 and possibly again in February 2021,” he said in his court declaration.
This person testified that the ACJ asked some incarcerated individuals and forced others from 2B and 2C to replace the sick kitchen workers.
The incarcerated persons from 2B were assigned the morning shift, and the persons from 2C were responsible for the night shift. Within days of the 2B workers starting their shifts in the kitchen, several became ill, and that pod was placed on quarantine.
Men housed on 2C were then required to cover both work shifts. But shortly after they did, several workers from 2C contracted COVID-19, and that pod was also put on quarantine.
Kieselka, who still works in the jail’s kitchen, was one of the workers infected and placed on quarantine in July and then again months later. “For four of five months, the whole kitchen pod was sick. There were 64 of us and 32 of us actually had it. We ended up quarantining three times in a row,” Kieselka said.
Workers kept testing positive. They were quarantined again and again. Eventually, the mental health of the workers deteriorated.
“I was pretty irritated–everybody was. The last quarantine they cut short because everyone was getting frustrated. Everybody was going nuts, going stir crazy. We went four or five days, they weren’t going to let us out for [recreation].”
Unpaid labor, worker policies and contracts
Penal labor in the United States is explicitly allowed by the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” However, pretrial detainees, those who have not been duly convicted, cannot be forced to participate in labor programs.
In the Allegheny County Jail, pretrial detainees, or those not yet convicted for a crime, work for free because their work is technically voluntary. Many choose to work because it allows them to stretch their legs, to move, to do anything at all outside of their cell during the pandemic lockdown.
Kitchen workers—or any other incarcerated individuals—inside the jail are not paid and one Allegheny County Councilor wants to change that. Bethany Hallam said she is currently in preliminary discussions with staff to introduce legislation that will pay Allegheny County Jail incarcerated workers $15 an hour. She is not sure if she will be able to make the change through the Jail Oversight Board or through County Council.
“I don’t think it’s fair to pay the wages out of the inmate welfare fund. I think the county should pay for it. We’re looking into doing it via the general county budget. It’s going to be an uphill battle—but really, what is the argument against it? They’re being exposed to elements every time they leave their pod, that’s a risk of catching COVID-19. All without being compensated,” said Hallam.
Hallam said that every dollar the jail saves goes in the county’s general fund instead of the worker’s pockets, “The county is profiting off of forced labor.”
“The 13th amendment protects against unpaid labor and less than 4% of the people in the jail are serving a sentence,” said Hallam, “All workers deserve to make a living wage. All of the jail’s essential functions are via unpaid forced-labor. It is essentially slave labor.”
Hallam said that the county could compensate the workers without violating its contract with Summit Food Service, LLC. Incarcerated persons do not technically work for the jail itself, but for Summit which oversees the incarcerated workers.
In 2017, Summit’s annual revenue was $160 million before acquiring CBM Managed Services, another corrections food service specialist with annual sales of around $70 million. “The merged companies represent combined annual revenues of more than $230 million,” according to Food Management news. Summit did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.
Under “specifications for the food service management of the Allegheny County Jail” in the county’s 2021 contract with Summit, the county lists a “Behavior Modification Program.” Summit is required to provide incentives—meaning food—in order to reward positive behavior. The catch is the incarcerated have to pay for it. The county requires that Summit provide fresh food items for this program and that Summit pays a 32.5% commission to the county when incarcerated persons pay for incentivized food.
This was something Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner had pointed out in her audit of the previous contractor, Trinity.
“While the County paid a maximum of $1.10 for each standard meal served in the Jail, a “reward” program enables Jail inmates to purchase additional menu items at prices ranging from $10.99 to $18.29, plus a $1.95 processing fee. Inmates paid about $98,500 for menu items from this program in the County Jail during the one-year audit period, with the County earning a commission of about $29,500 from these sales.”
Nowhere in this contract is Summit required to provide or list compensation options for incarcerated persons.
That can be found in the jail’s incarcerated worker policy.
The document, not provided by the county in a Right-to-Know request, but obtained by The Current elsewhere, stipulates that, “both sentenced and, with some exceptions, non-sentenced inmates are eligible for work assignments.” According to this policy incarcerated persons are compensated two ways: food and direct visits with loved ones. During a pandemic, though, the latter is not possible.
“[W]orkers will be compensated for their work by receiving a second meal tray at meal times,” the contract reads. “Eligible workers…who have worked in the above named jobs for at at least thirty days and have been proficient in their job duties, and inmates who have successfully completed an approved program may be considered for monthly contact visits…Contact visits are a privilege and will be treated as such.”
Prior to March 2021, the food service provider for the jail was Florida-based contractor Trinity Services Group. In July of last year, Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner released an audit of the ACJ and noted what she called, “several instances of noncompliance” with Trinity contract provisions. In a press release published with the report, Wagner concluded that Trinity profited from charging excess amounts to the incarcerated and their families.
“The inescapable conclusion of these findings is that Trinity profits from inmates being dissatisfied with the meals provided and charging them in excess of market prices for something more appealing,” Wagner said, ”Extracting funds from often-vulnerable inmates and their families on the back end is what enables them to charge a pittance on the front end and secure these contracts. It might be a brilliant business model, but it’s no way to treat individuals for whom the County has a duty of care.”
Prison Legal News reported, “Trinity had failed to provide ServSafe food service certification training to its prisoner workers. The salad bar at the juvenile center had been converted to staff-only use, and juvenile prisoners were denied access to extra portions. There was ‘little to no fresh produce,’ the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports.”
Then in March, the jail changed its service provider to Summit.According to multiple incarcerated persons and former jail employees, the change did not improve working conditions in the kitchen.
In fact, most currently incarcerated persons interviewed by the Pittsburgh Current allege that the food quality in the kitchen has worsened.
Family members voice concerns about jail kitchen, commissary
Everything in the kitchen is connected–the long work hours, the outbreaks, the poor quality of food, and yes, even the rats. When the kitchen goes down, so does the jail.
In December 2020, during a kitchen pod outbreak, The Current reported on the poor quality of food served. A viral video emerged– the jail had served a slice of baloney, applesauce and Teddy Grahams. The video was shared by a family member of Kevin Harris, who told The Current in December:
“It is a shitshow in here. We are told to follow the rules as inmates. But they also have rules and responsibilities to us and the public that they need to follow and they’re not doing it. We are not getting the nutritional value that we need to sustain ourselves. Nothing is fresh. We don’t get fruit or vegetables. Last night, we didn’t get anything to drink with that meal. We’re getting baloney at least three-to-four times a week; usually more. They slice it, they dice it, they chop it; they even throw it on top of mashed potatoes, like that makes it better.”
Private groups on social media platforms have cropped up for folks directly impacted by the Allegheny County Jail. Family members and loved ones can compare notes, discuss concerns and offer support. A common theme? Food. Loved ones of incarcerated persons continue to share screenshots of food trays to social media, voicing their concerns about nutrition and quality of life for those confined at the ACJ.
“This is what they are feeding our loved ones” a post from February reads. The attached screenshot shows a tupperware full of what appears to be mashed peas and some sort of binding agent.
In another post from March 7, a family member writes, “They wouldnt feed this SHIT to their loved ones so why feed it to ours. Mashed potatoes grits jello & peanut butter that was breakfast at 9:30. How do we get answers???”
The picture shows a glob of electric green jello.
According to Summit’s contract with the jail: “All meals shall be palatable, visually pleasing, meeting nutritional recommendations, and served with the applicable condiments.”
Some incarcerated persons have diet restrictions, some are diabetic, others are sick with COVID-19 and need nutrition as their body fights the novel virus. Summit’s contract with the county outlines the nutritional requirements of the jail’s population and stipulates that a Summit, “shall ensure that all dietary menus are developed by a registered dietitian nutritionist and that the menus are reviewed bi-anually.”
“Diets and menus shall promote healthy lifestyles and consider the special dietary needs considerations for the following populations: juvenile inmates, pregnant inmates, and inmates with chronic disease or special medical needs,” according to the contract.
The contract suggests adequate diets, as well listing a “variety of vegetables (including dark green, legumes, root, cruciferous), fruits, grains, proteins (including legumes, eggs, poultry).” The county states that nutritionally adequate diets, “may limit added sugars and sodium.”
When Timbers saw patients at the jail, they would “beg” him to ask for better or more food. Timbers said he would go down to the kitchen and remind managers that certain patients had diet restrictions.
“They don’t get adequate nutrition down there,” said Timbers. “They go by calories. So whatever the book says how many calories a person is supposed to get per day, that’s what they give him. But keep in mind, everybody’s a different size. Some people require less, some people require more. I have gone down to the kitchen, personally, to speak to whoever was in charge. And they weren’t a dietician.”
Timbers would tell the kitchen to redress the trays, but oftentimes he’d have to return to the kitchen more than once to correct the patient’s diet.
“The food’s terrible. I mean, it’s just terrible, When there’s COVID, they get sandwiches–turkey sandwiches or bologna sandwiches—they might get an apple. Not enough to sustain a grown man,” Timbers said.
Food from the ACJ kitchen is the only way for people inside the jail to eat for free. Incarcerated persons can purchase additional food, like ramen or tuna, through the commissary. But, according to Timbers, not all incarcerated persons are fortunate enough to have “money on their books” and can’t afford to supplement their diet.
With few outlets for their frustrations, family members connect on social media. One person said that it was costing more than $1,000 in commissary a month to sustain their incarcerated loved one. Another pointed to ‘price gouging,’ in reference to being charged $7 for a single tuna pack.
In the past several months of the pandemic, members of the Jail Oversight Board have put $50 on the books of all residents to help them during the pandemic. Corey Durrett-King, 40, housed at the jail, told The Current that folks who don’t have money on their books, or who don’t have family to send money, suffer the most at the ACJ. When the kitchen goes down, people will supplement their food with commissary. Unless.
“If you’re indigent and you don’t have support—you don’t have food for the commissary. You have nothing. You’re sitting in your cell going hungry.”