Tour of the
and Night Court County Jail
My fellow Citizens’
Police Academy students and I ventured into for the first of our two field trips of the session. Somehow, in spite of my GPS refusing to accept that the address I was given actually existed, I managed to find my way to the Allegheny County Jail. Pittsburgh
Before our tour, the class gathered in the courtroom of Judge Anthony Saviekis, who gave us an overview of what we’d be seeing that evening. I’d forgotten we weren’t permitted to bring cell phones into the facility, but so had several of the other students. Our phones were collected and held before we could enter the jail.
Our first stop was the intake area. Officers drive into a large bay where they secure their weapons before bringing the prisoner into a sally port. The prisoner empties his pockets, is patted down, and takes a seat in a chair that is actually a metal detector. Cameras document everything. This protects both the prisoner AND the officers. From there we were guided to the counter where the prisoner’s personal items are collected and documented. He’s given a receipt for them.
We passed by a number of holding cells. Unlike the movies and TV, there were no bars on these cells. Instead heavy steel doors are fitted with thick glass. There are two cells specifically for prisoners who state they may hurt themselves and another one contains a restraint chair. Men and women are kept in separate areas. What struck me were all the sad and tragic faces that stared out at us through those windows as we passed.
During part of the processing, the prisoner is IDed using fingerprints. This is done by electronic scanning, not ink. A person may use an alias, but their true identity will be found out at this point. Someone might attend their arraignment thinking they’re going to make bond, only to be held on other charges discovered at this time.
The prisoner is photographed, and a nurse checks him out and gives him a TB shot. There’s a bank of phones available to call family members or bail bondsmen. There’s also a nearby list of bail bondsmen should a prisoner need one.
Note: Bond is returned when you show up for your court date. However, if you use a bail bondsman, you give them…say $10,000 on a $100,000 bond…and they keep it as their fee.
The prisoner walks through a large machine (which reminded me of some kind of portal in a sci-fi movie) called a “puffer.” It blows a puff of air on them and detects drugs and explosives. If you pass the test, you get patted down. If you fail, you get strip searched.
Our group moved into another area—the final stop before a prisoner heads upstairs. In a large room behind a counter, thousands of plastic bins store all the effects of all the prisoners in that facility. This includes the clothes (unwashed!) the prisoner came in with. Let’s just say the place reeks. It kind of smells like baloney! In an adjacent room the prisoner takes a shower. Depending on the results from the above-mentioned puffer, the prisoner may simply be sent back to shower OR he may be strip searched first.
An “interesting” note: they add lice medication into the shampoo in the showers. (Ick!)
We then headed upstairs.
The prison has 8 levels, each with a mezzanine, so there are 16 floors. The lower levels are low security, and maximum security is on the top floors. We only went to the first level, but it was enough to creep me out. The only “fresh air” is through a grate high in the wall of an interior gym. In this low-security “pod,” several inmates were in the common area, mopping and cleaning. Two others were asked to step out of their cell so we could look in. There is no such thing as privacy or dignity here.
Another note of interest: the lower levels have porcelain toilets. Further up, they’re stainless steel.
There are cameras everywhere. We went into one of the camera control rooms and observed how they can zoom in tight enough to read an inmate’s ID bracelet. They also revealed some incredible murals that inmates have painted.
I was never so glad to get out of a place. And I never want to go back.
Next we sat in on night court with Judge Saviekis (who is nothing like Judge Harry Stone from the TV show. Nor was Bull anywhere to be seen). Nonetheless, he was very informative and entertaining.
The courtroom wasn’t quite what I expected either. The most striking difference was the tall iron fence that separated the judge from the gallery. On this night, the gate remained open as police officers and detectives filed through with affidavits and requests for warrants.
The night court is an arraignment court. The judge looks at the charges and determines and sets bail, the purpose of which is to assure their appearance for their day in court. The judge looks at a lot of factors, including the type of crime (bail is routinely denied for a homicide) and the risk of flight (Is the person an out of town prostitute? Do they have ties to the community? Do they have a prior failure to appear in their record?)
If a person fails to appear, a bench warrant is issued and remains issued until it’s cleared. That person may very well be in more trouble for failure to appear than they would have been for the original charges.
We watched four arraignments that night. All were done by video from a room over in the jail…something else you don’t see on television shows.
And now, since I know you’ve been thinking about this ever since you read that this blog was about night court, I give you this look back.