SCI Pittsburgh prison guards sue over abuse allegations, dismissals
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Corrections officers at the center of inmate abuse allegations at the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh staked their claims in a lawsuit filed Monday, saying they were unfairly dismissed from their jobs based on a thin investigation.
Harry Nicoletti, Tory Kelly, Bruce Lowther, Brian Olinger and John Michaels claim in the lawsuit that their due process rights were violated by six current or former Department of Corrections officials. They demand payment for the lost earnings, anxiety and illnesses they have suffered since they were escorted from the prison last year.
Mr. Olinger, who had faced criminal charges, later dismissed, that were based on inmate claims, also sued for malicious prosecution.
Department officials regularly fend off lawsuits by inmates claiming they have been abused by guards, said attorney Lawrence Fisher, who is representing the five former corrections officers. But in this case, he said, the department has accepted "incongruent and incredible allegations of convicted felons" against people with "unblemished records as corrections officers."
A department spokeswoman said she could not comment on litigation.
The filing adds to the thicket of court cases arising out of a probe in 2010 and 2011 by the department's Office of Special Investigations and Intelligence, which concluded that inmates -- especially those who were convicted of sex crimes -- were systematically and sometimes brutally hazed on SCI Pittsburgh's F Block.
Corrections investigators are likely to testify for the prosecution at the upcoming trials stemming from inmate allegations of Mr. Nicoletti, 60, of Coraopolis, set for Jan. 8; Mr. Kelly, 41, of Aliquippa, set for Dec. 17; and Mr. Lowther, 35, of West Newton, who could go to trial Jan. 28.
Meanwhile, attorneys for the department are defending its employees -- although not Mr. Nicoletti -- against six inmates' claims that they were abused.
Separately, those attorneys also are before the 3rd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, defending against three former top SCI Pittsburgh managers, including former Superintendent Melvin Lockett, who said they were improperly fired as the allegations became public.
Now, the corrections officers' lawsuit will likely force the state to defend Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, Deputy Secretary Shirley Moore Smeal, investigators Gary Hiler and Michael Kondas, Mr. Lockett and his successor, Daniel Burns.
The new lawsuit said that those officials removed the five officers from their jobs following an investigation that started with the account of one "convicted child sex abuser" who claimed he was propositioned by a guard on F Block. The department then "stoked" that claim, causing it to "morph uncontrollably into a baseless conspiracy" against F Block officers, Mr. Fisher wrote. Other inmates, he wrote, told investigators "radically inconsistent stories" to "get back at" officers they didn't like.
The lawsuit said the department suspended the five in 2011 without explanation. An arbitrator overturned the department's suspensions, finding that the officers were never given an opportunity to defend themselves, and ordering them back to work. They were fired anyway after payment of minimal back wages, and Commonwealth Court reversed the arbitrator's ruling on a technicality.
Mr. Michaels, a former sergeant, has never been charged with a crime.
"They've had really good careers," Mr. Fisher said. "Most of them have gone unsung and unnoticed. That doesn't mean they can be thrown out as dirt," following an investigation built on inmate claims.
Mr. Fisher said that pursuit of the lawsuit doesn't conflict with the criminal defenses of the three officers who face trial. "Because these individuals are so entirely confident of their innocence in the criminal matters that have been so maliciously pursued against them," he said, "they see this civil litigation as only supporting their innocence claim."
First Published November 27, 2012 12:00 am