SCI Pittsburgh guard uses tattoos to tell story of firing


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Never accused of a crime, but fired in the wake of accusations against others, John Michaels has treated his frustration with tattoos.

The former sergeant at the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh was not a tattoo guy before the start of an 18-month journey that has seen him suspended, fired and subjected to a series of financial slights at the hands of the state Department of Corrections. Now, though, his arms are decorated with an eagle representing "Brotherhood," a demon labeled "Accusation," a grim reaper called "Termination" and an angel of "Truth."

"It's a way to express all of the frustration," he said Thursday of the tattoos, inked by Flech Mechanics in Monaca at a discount. "I feel the DOC has marked me for life, and I want to express that."

Mr. Michaels is the only person who was suspended, but not criminally charged, after inmates accused corrections officers of abusing or hazing pedophiles held on SCI Pittsburgh's F Block. Nearly seven months ago an arbitrator ordered him returned to work, with back pay. The department instead fired him, and calculated that he was due less than $8,000 in back pay for a year off. This month the department nixed his unemployment and prompted the Department of Labor to demand repayment of more than $11,000 in benefits.

He's challenging the department's decisions through grievances.

"It's been very emotionally draining. I've gotten to the point where I've lost 50 pounds," said Mr. Michaels, 48. "I want to go back [to work] just to prove that I didn't do anything, that this was all just accusations."

The department's handling of Mr. Michaels, and others accused in the F Block case, was a motivation behind legislation introduced in July that would change the way corrections officers are disciplined. Sometimes called the corrections officers' bill of rights, it would raise the bar for departmental investigations of prison personnel, keep intact their medical benefits during investigations and allow them to sue those who level frivolous complaints.

"Obviously, if you have someone who bilks the law, they need to be held accountable," said state Rep. Mike Fleck, R-Huntingdon, the author of the legislation. But prison management, he said, shouldn't be able to say, "'Hey, we're going to pull you off without pay and we're going to figure out what happened later.' ... There needs to be some rules."

Saddling prison management with too many rules could compromise public safety, said Martin Horn, a former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and now a criminology professor in New York. "Inmates can and do make malicious and frivolous complaints," he said. "But I think that an officer who has done nothing wrong has nothing to fear."

Shortchanged

The accusations that emerged from F Block last year included charges that corrections officers physically and psychologically abused sex offenders who came through the block. Officer Harry F. Nicoletti, 60, of Coraopolis, faces 89 criminal counts, including institutional sexual assault, and his trial is now set for Jan. 8.

Also awaiting trial are Tory D. Kelly, 40, of Aliquippa, on 19 counts including simple assault and witness intimidation; Jerome J. Lynch, 36, of the North Side, facing seven counts; and Bruce S. Lowther, 34, of West Newton, facing two counts. All have pleaded not guilty, and remain suspended without pay.

Three other corrections officers were charged but cleared.

"All they have are inmate accusations," said Mr. Michaels. "None against me."

Nonetheless, when an arbitrator ruled that the department violated Mr. Michaels' due process rights and ordered payment of back pay and an end to his suspension, the department fired him.

The department determined that he missed more than $52,000 in gross base pay, but calculated deductions to whittle that down to less than $8,000. Among other things, the department deducted more than $9,300 for medical insurance that had actually been canceled during his time off.

"I don't know anybody who can live a year under those circumstances," said Roy Pinto, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, which is backing the legislation. Under the proposed legislation, he said, the department will "be able to remove a John Michaels [from duty] pending the outcome. But until he's found guilty, they can't cut off his benefits."

Mr. Michaels said that six months ago he sent the department more than $5,000 in medical bills he had to pay out of pocket during his suspension, but he hasn't been paid for that, either.

He collected unemployment from April 1 through early this month, but then got a letter from the state demanding the money back.

The Department of Labor and Industry wrote that it accepted the Department of Corrections' allegations that Mr. Michaels tolerated profanity, discrimination, excessive force and insolence in the prison.

Mr. Michaels said he can't pay the money back. "They're about to shut our cell phones off because we can't make the payment. ... We're behind in our utilities. Our car payments are going to be late."

The department declined to talk about its handling of Mr. Michaels' case, saying it was a personnel matter. It refused the Post-Gazette's request under the right-to-know act for records reflecting payments this year to officers whose job status changed due to the F Block allegations. And the department had no comment on Mr. Fleck's legislation.

One more tattoo

Prisoners "have nothing else to do than to make false accusations," said Mr. Pinto. "SCI Pittsburgh is a perfect example where families and lives were destroyed. They were put through hardships that should never have happened."

That's why the union is backing legislation, he said.

Mr. Fleck's bill would give corrections officers, when accused by the department of wrongdoing, 24 hours warning before any internal affairs interrogation, except in emergencies.

Mr. Horn said any such delay could compromise an investigation. "The state," he said, "has a strong public policy interest in promptly investigating bad things that happen inside its prisons."

The legislation would require that interrogations be recorded, and bar the department from compelling officers to submit to polygraph tests.

If the department suspended an officer without pay, it would have to maintain the employee's medical benefits until any criminal charges were resolved, or until their employment ended.

And an officer who overcame a frivolous or meritless accusation would have the express right to sue -- not just an accusing inmate, but potentially the department itself.

"If they're out a couple of hundred thousands in legal fees, someone's going to step up and make them whole," said Mr. Fleck.

That's a "solution without a problem," said Mr. Horn. "Is there evidence that officers are subject of complaints, frivolous or meritless, by the department?" He said there is not.

Mr. Fleck said the bill, never before introduced in Pennsylvania, won't move to a vote this year, but has bipartisan support and a good chance next year. It has 24 co-sponsors.

Mr. Michaels is looking for other work, but has failed to find anything that will come close to replacing his income as a sergeant.

He's hoping the arbitration process will get him back to work.

Despite his 50-pound weight loss, Mr. Michaels' arms have gotten a lot "fuller."

"It's just so out of character for him to do that," his wife, Debbie Michaels, said about the tattoos. "He was a person who said, 'I will never put a tattoo on my body.' "

He said he can't even pay a token amount for any more tattoos, but wants to, eventually, put one more word under the angel: "Vindication."

neigh_city

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


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