U.S. Justice opens inquiry into Pa. prison abuses

Looking at sexual violence at SCI Pittsburgh, mental health treatment at Cresson facility

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The U.S. Justice Department announced Thursday that it has launched a civil investigation into the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh, which has been rocked by an inmate abuse scandal that has resulted in criminal charges against seven correctional officers.

It also is investigating SCI Cresson in Cambria County regarding problems in treatment of inmates with mental illness.

Similar investigations have ended with agreements to improve procedures, or lawsuits by the federal government against states and counties. A state Department of Corrections spokeswoman said her agency intends to bring this probe to an amicable end.

"We always try to cooperate fully with any outside agency that comes in and wants to look at our operations," said Department of Corrections spokeswoman Sue Bensinger. "We anticipate this being a smooth, cooperative effort on our part with the Department of Justice."

The Justice Department announced that it is probing SCI Pittsburgh under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, in response to allegations of "prisoner-on-prisoner and officer-on-prisoner violence and sexual violence, in violation of the Eighth Amendment" barring cruel and unusual punishment.

"In addition, the department will look into whether SCI Pittsburgh officers systematically targeted prisoners for violence and other abuse based on the prisoners' race, sexual orientation, gender identity or other status," according to the Justice Department's news release.

In September, former correctional officer Harry Nicoletti, 59, of Coraopolis, was charged with 92 counts including institutional sexual assault, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and indecent assault.

Prosecutors and two civil lawsuits have portrayed Mr. Nicoletti as the ringleader of a cabal of correctional officers who preyed on inmates who were incarcerated for sexual crimes, were gay or transgendered or wouldn't go along with their activities. Last month, six more guards were charged in state court with related crimes.

Four top administrators at the prison were replaced and are no longer Department of Corrections employees.

Ms. Bensinger said Thursday that the department has taken other measures.

"Months ago, we locked down, did a thorough search" of the prison, she said. "A new team was put into place, so yes, there have been some changes that have been initiated operationally at SCI Pittsburgh."

She said she anticipates that the Justice Department is "going to ensure that we're doing things as top-notch as we think we are and as efficiently as we can."

Last year the Justice Department examined the Cook County (Illinois) Jail and reached an agreement to change what it described in a report to Congress as a "permissive culture surrounding the excessive use of force," to improve inmate services and to hire 600 more correctional officers.

In 2009, the department sued Erie County, New York, alleging staff-on-inmate and inmate-on-inmate violence and sexual misconduct, plus other problems at its jail including eight suicides since 2005. They reached an agreement with the county on suicide prevention, but the department told Congress that they were still fighting in court to force the jail to remedy problems.

Launching such a probe "is not a step [Justice Department officials] take lightly; I know that," said Witold Walczak, Pennsylvania legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union. "Now they're going to put in significant resources to do a much more thorough investigation."

Mr. Walczak said the probe could lead to court-approved or court-ordered procedural changes, like the ones imposed on Pittsburgh police 15 years ago, but not to financial sanctions against the state.

There could, however, be an indirect financial effect, through the private civil complaints alleging sexual abuse.

"It allows me to have more access to more information that I would probably have to fight harder to get if we did not have a DOJ investigation," said Steve Barth, an attorney representing one abused former SCI Pittsburgh inmate who has filed a lawsuit. "This is a very good step forward in trying to reform these institutions."

The Justice Department said this probe is "separate from any potential federal criminal investigation involving these facilities."

U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton's office is working with the department and declined further comment. Mr. Hickton's civil rights unit has brought charges of violating civil rights against Allegheny County Jail employees, but it has so far not been publicly active in the prison prosecutions, which are being conducted by the Allegheny County district attorney.

An organizer for the Human Rights Coalition, a statewide prisoner rights organization, said the Justice Department's probe "goes part of the way."

"An investigation into systematic violations of civil rights is important for the level of exposure and accountability it has the potential to bring," said the organizer, Bret Grote. "And it's very crucial that any investigation meticulously scrutinizes the absence of any effective oversight and the deliberately dysfunctional [inmate] grievance system that is in place."

He said his organization has been sharing information with the Justice Department about the other prison that is now under investigation, SCI Cresson, in Cambria County.

He said the coalition has received allegations that inmates were denied mental health treatment, were successfully encouraged to commit suicide, deprived of food, and kept in solitary confinement for long periods.

The Justice Department said in its release that SCI Cresson provided "inadequate mental health care to prisoners who have mental illness, failed to adequately protect such prisoners from harm, and subjected them to excessively prolonged periods of isolation."

Mr. Walczak said that last summer, the ACLU brought to Mr. Hickton concerns about SCI Cresson's "unduly harsh punitive measures without mental health counseling or support" for inmates.

Ms. Bensinger said SCI Cresson houses 1,541 inmates and has a special needs unit for mental health patients. "They're difficult populations," she said.

"It has not been brought to anyone's attention [at the Department of Corrections] if there is any issue" with procedures at SCI Cresson, she said.

Starting today, anyone with information on the prisons can contact the Justice Department at pennsylvaniaprisons.community@usdoj.gov .

Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542 First Published December 2, 2011 5:00 AM


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