Charges of sustained sexual abuse at the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh show that Pennsylvania's prisons are in need of an independent probe, an overhaul of grievance procedures and new rules for solitary confinement, a coalition of activist groups said Tuesday.
Protesting on the steps of the City-County Building, members of the Human Rights Coalition said recent civil lawsuits and the arrest of one corrections officer on 92 counts are not enough.
"We need a full investigation by neutral entities," said Helen Gerhardt, of the Pennsylvania Network Against Torture. "We need the Department of Justice and state Legislature to really get involved so we know what's going on."
Last month SCI Pittsburgh corrections Officer Harry Nicoletti was indicted by a grand jury empaneled by Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.'s office on crimes relating to sexual and abusive acts against inmates. Two civil lawsuits claim that he was part of a ring of officers who targeted gay and transgender inmates and those incarcerated for sex crimes. Eight corrections officers have been suspended, and four top managers fired.
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Susan McNaughton said the district attorney's probe is an outside review of the prison.
The father of one inmate who alleges abuse said his son filed grievances that were not sustained by corrections staff. Activists said that only a tiny fraction of grievances are sustained.
Ms. McNaughton said the department has a grievance procedure that encourages informal resolution of complaints but that any inmate can appeal a decision up to central office staff.
Human Rights Coalition members said the state holds people in "solitary confinement" for months or years. It wants new legislation restricting time in solitary.
Ms. McNaughton said disciplinary housing terms of 30, 60 or 90 days are meted out to inmates when rules are broken, or when there is "a serious threat to staff or other inmates," and only after a hearing at the prison. She confirmed that discipline involves 23 hours in a cell without television or radio, with one hour out for exercise.
Rich Lord: email@example.com or 412-263-1542