Former Allegheny County Jail guard leader avoids prison


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James Donis won't be handcuffed and locked up following his sentencing Wednesday for a false report filed after he punched an inmate, but the former major of the guards of the Allegheny County Jail won't be entirely free, either.

Donis, 50, of Shaler was sentenced to five years of probation, including eight months in the Downtown community corrections center Renewal Inc. While there, he'll be able to work, but won't be spending free time with the family and friends who wrote letters urging leniency and poured into court to support him.

"I made a big mistake, there's no doubt in my mind," Donis told U.S. District Judge Gustave Diamond. "Please don't judge me just on this one incident in 23 years" at the jail.

The judge said he considered the good Donis did in the jail and the community, weighing it against the need to send a message. "None of us is above the law," the judge said.

Donis was initially charged in November 2011 with deprivation of civil rights related to an April 6, 2010, apprehension of would-be escapee Gary W. Barbour and two charges related to his subsequent reporting to the jail and FBI.

Donis was accused of punching the inmate in the face. After the incident, Donis submitted a report that didn't mention any use of force. Defense attorney Charles Porter said he was encouraged to leave out the use of force by a superior.

After the FBI began looking into the incident, Donis revised the report to falsely claim that force was needed to subdue the inmate.

In a plea bargain, the charges of deprivation of rights and lying to law enforcement were dropped in return for his admission of guilt to false reporting.

Barbour, 31, is serving a sentence of as much as 30 months in prison for escape, and is suing the county for damages sustained from the beating. His father, also named Gary Barbour, said he was disappointed at the sentence because he wished Donis would "feel what it was like to be handcuffed and helpless."

Judge Diamond found that federal guidelines suggested a range of 12 to 18 months in prison for Donis.

Mr. Porter argued for home confinement. "We have a very short, 30-second, minute blip on the radar, if you will, in the process of apprehending an escaping felon," he said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Shaun Sweeney argued for prison time, saying that while Donis led a good life other than the events for which he was charged, the courts needed to send a message to the corrections community.

"He did this punching in front of a bunch of subordinates," Mr. Sweeney said. "The corrections officers in the Western District of Pennsylvania are going to be watching closely."

Judge Diamond found a middle ground.

"The underlying act that brought this all about was, I believe, an aberrant act," said Judge Diamond. "I don't believe that this defendant is the type that should be sentenced at [the federal prison in] Lewisburg."

Around 55 people submitted letters of support for Donis, and a half-dozen testified for him today.

Donis had earned $68,631 as one of the jail's top four managers. Now he works at a bar and installs security systems for a company he co-owns.

A May 14 hearing is scheduled to determine how much restitution Donis must pay to Barbour.

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Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542.


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