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Retired Allegheny County Jail guards raise safety concerns following stabbing

August 4, 2018 GMT

Two retired Allegheny County Jail guards and the mother of two current guards are raising concerns about guard safety following the stabbing of two guards Friday.

The group, along with several others, held a small demonstration outside the jail Tuesday afternoon.

One of their top concerns was mandatory overtime shifts for guards -- the main reason that caused Cindy Debold to retire last year after 16 years.

“Officers doing 16 hours for three, four days in a row cannot function, their body’s gonna break down,” said Debold, 61, of Pittsburgh’s Westwood neighborhood.

Debold said a guard told her recently he was so tired after working a long overtime shift, he fell asleep at a red light.

Overworked guards are dangerous for both guards and inmates, the women agreed.

“The inmates know if an officer is on the pod and they’re tired,” Debold said. “They’re waiting for the officer to put their head back, just not be alert, and they could attack another inmate ... so it’s an issue for the inmates also.”

Lisa Lightner, mother of two guards, agreed.

“I’m worried not only about my two sons, but everyone in there from the guards to the inmates,” said Lightner, 51, of Burgettstown.

Guards are frequently ordered to work mandatory overtime shifts three or four times during a two-week period, even though their contract says they can only be forced to work overtime once in a two-week period, Eric Stoltenberg, an attorney for the Allegheny County Prison Employees Independent Union, told the County Council in May.

Last year, the county paid $7.45 million in overtime to jail guards. So far this year, it has paid more than $4.2 million, according to Mary Soroka, county budget director. Of the jail’s 445 full- and part-time guards, 430 have worked overtime so far this year.

Warden Orlando Harper said safety is a priority at the jail.

“This facility, like most 24/7 operations, requires mandatory overtime,” Harper wrote in an email to the Trib on Tuesday. “In our case, that requirement also ensures public safety. We work diligently to find that balance between having the staffing that is required, while not taxing the corrections officers who either volunteer or are mandated to work overtime.”

Gayle Sappie said she had worked with both of the guards who were stabbed Friday, before she retired in 2014. She wanted to voice concerns because guards aren’t allowed talk to the media, she said.  

“The two officers that were stabbed are very good officers. They’re both veteran officers,” said Sappie, 72, of Sheraden, who worked at the jail as a guard for 14 years. “It should not have happened, but I’m not surprised. I’m surprised it didn’t happen before this.”

The women also raised concerns that the employee elevator that goes to the seventh and eighth floors was down at the time of the stabbing, which occurred on the seventh floor, and is still down.

“You can get to (floors) seven and eight, but you have to go a whole different way to get up there,” Debold said. “When someone’s getting stabbed, seconds mean a lot,” Debold said.

The inmate elevators were full of lunch food trays when the stabbing occurred just before 1 p.m. Friday, so medical staff had to run up three flights of stairs to respond, Lightner said.

The elevator is down for a planned repair, said James Reardon, the county’s director of facilities management. Once that elevator is repaired, another elevator will be down for a repair. All other jail elevators are operating, and were Friday, Reardon said.

The jail guard union raises concerns about non-operating elevators at nearly every meeting with jail officials, Stoltenberg said.