HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has taken major steps to clean up serious prisoner abuse problems at the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh, a U.S. Department of Justice investigation concluded.
The Department of Justice has ended a probe into prison conditions in SCI Pittsburgh’s F Block, according to a letter sent this week to Gov. Tom Corbett from U.S. Attorney David Hickton.
The investigation was initiated in 2011 after seven corrections officers there were arrested.
A group of officers and prisoners abused about 30 prisoners in the F Block area of the prison, specifically targeting sex offenders, prisoners who were gay, and transgender or “gender-nonconforming” prisoners, the letter says.
These “distinct groups of vulnerable prisoners were singled out for sexual assault and degrading or violent abuse,” the Department of Justice noted.
A slew of prosecutions and civil lawsuits ensued in the wake of the accusations.
The prison’s four top administrators were fired, and numerous corrections officers were suspended and then fired — though some have won their jobs back. Two were tried and sentenced to probation.
The Justice Department, in its letter to the governor, commended what it described as “a strong commitment on the part of the Department of Corrections to creating a safer environment for prisoners” and for reforming policies and practices in Pittsburgh and throughout the state prison system.
“During our initial visit to the Pittsburgh prison, we learned that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections was already undertaking important steps to respond to the serious allegations of officer misconduct. We also witnessed a strong commitment on the part of the Department of Corrections to creating a safer environment for prisoners,” the Justice Department’s letter said.
It noted six areas where it initially saw need for reforms, such as the procedure by which the Department of Corrections handles allegations of abuse and misconduct, procedures for screening high-risk prisoners, and systems for combatting sexual abuse.
Among the reforms implemented or being implemented:
The department has developed an early-warning system to more effectively track staff misconduct; has made improvements in intake and housing procedures that put new prisoners in an area where they can be more easily observed; and has installed clearer policies and training for staff on how to respond to sexual violence.
The department has also created two new positions responsible for combatting sexual abuse and has put in place a plan to monitor formerly unmonitored areas with more cameras, the 16-page letter said. “While implementation has not occurred in some areas, we are convinced that leadership and staff will complete what they have set out to do,” it said.
Kate Giammarise: firstname.lastname@example.org, 1-717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.Staff writer Rich Lord contributed.