Inmates sexually abused by guards, civil suit says
State prison here cited in complaint
September 23, 2011 4:00 AM
The back of the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh as viewed from Doerr Street on the North Side.
By Rich Lord Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Inmates at the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh were subjected to a pattern of sexual abuse and other mistreatment, according to a civil lawsuit filed Thursday that purported to cast new light on the suspensions of eight guards and the dismissals of four top officials this year.
The graphic allegations range from threatening inmates with physical or disciplinary actions if they did not provide guards or other inmates with sexual favors to deliberately contaminating inmate food with bodily fluids. They were met with silence by the state Department of Corrections, which is one of the named defendants.
The accusations of abuse committed prior to a May leadership change at the lock-up along the Ohio River warrant "a complete investigation of how this could occur without someone outside being aware of it," said Marion Damick, co-convenor of the Allegheny County chapter of the Pennsylvania Prison Society.
"It's certainly particularly egregious, yes," Ms. Damick said. "It's a situation where you can have very prejudiced [guards] who feel that they are able, without fear of discipline, to engage in whatever activities they want to." If true, the allegations "reflect very strongly on the management that oversaw the [guards] in the state institution."
"Inmates make accusations all the time," said David Mandella, local vice president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, which represents the guards. "As far as I'm concerned, 99.9 percent of the time, they're false."
He said an Allegheny County grand jury is investigating the matter and has interviewed four of the suspended officers, who have been sworn to secrecy.
"As far as I know, there's been no proof of any of these accusations, obviously, or obviously they would've charged my members," he said.
The civil lawsuit was written by attorneys Steven M. Barth and D. Aaron Rihn on behalf of an inmate identified only as John Doe. The inmate was at SCI Pittsburgh from March 2009 through July 2010, according the complaint, for a parole violation.
While there, the inmate encountered "a common plan and conspiracy to sexually abuse, physically abuse and mentally abuse inmates who were homosexual" as well as those who were transgender or convicted of sex crimes, it said.
The unnamed inmate was one victim, it said.
In January 2010, according to the complaint, the inmate known as John Doe was approached by correctional Officer Harry Nicoletti Jr. and given three choices: be anally raped, perform oral sex or touch the officer's genitals. He was threatened with "physical abuse" and the filing of "fraudulent misconducts" if he "did not [choose] how he was to be sexually assaulted that day," the complaint said.
"There is no truth to any of this whatsoever," said Mr. Nicoletti, who said he worked in the prison for 10 years. "It makes me sick to my stomach that someone can make accusations like that. It's totally false, and there's eight [correctional officers] out on the street with no pay, no benefits."
The complaint said other, similar assaults occurred in March and April 2010 and that Mr. Nicoletti on one occasion punched the inmate when he would not comply and on another occasion gave the inmate drugs he was not prescribed.
The inmate "was ordered to allow other inmates to fondle his genitalia while corrections officers watched," the complaint said. "Failure of any inmate to comply with this conduct ... resulted in further abuse and intimidation by officers on duty."
While at SCI Pittsburgh, the inmate witnessed officers "physically and sexually abuse inmates ... order inmates to defecate and urinate into inmate's food," among other practices, it said.
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Susan McNaughton declined comment.
In April, eight guards, including Mr. Nicoletti, were suspended.
"The Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association filed grievances on behalf of all eight officers because they should have their rights to due process," said Dave La Torre, a spokesman for the union. He said the union had not seen the civil lawsuit and could not comment.
"There's eight of us, and none of us have received any due process," Mr. Nicoletti said.
In May, four top SCI Pittsburgh officials were replaced. Ms. McNaughton said they are no longer employed by the department.
They were superintendent Melvin Lockett, superintendent for facility management Martin Kovacs, deputy superintendent for centralized services Janice Niemiec and major of the guard John Wiser. All are named defendants in the lawsuit.
Another former SCI Pittsburgh inmate, Rodger E. Williams, filed a pro se complaint two months ago, complaining of the treatment of transgender inmates like himself at the Woods Run prison and SCI Greene. Among them: that Mr. Nicoletti abused him and "doled [him] out to other corrections officers and a [prison] inmate into forcibly committing sexual acts."
In a recent addendum to the complaint, Mr. Williams, 32, wrote that he suffered "oral and anal rape" conducted by state corrections officers.
Mr. Williams' accusations were first reported by the Pittsburgh City Paper.
The complaint by the inmate known as John Doe states that "an inmate and [guards] repeatedly sexually assaulted a transgender inmate over a nine-day period."