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Prisoners Faced Violent Hazing In Troubled Pennsylvania Jail

by Michael Rigby

At least 50 prisoners entering Pennsylvania's Somerset County Jail over a 2-year period were beaten as part of a violent hazing ritual that went unchecked by jail authorities. This combined with serious overcrowding and a history of poor performance has placed the jail in danger of decertification.

The beatings, delivered to new prisoners by more senior ones, came in the form of a shower shoeing," said Somerset Borough Police Chief Randy Cox. These attacks consisted of 10 to 20 whacks" with a heavy, rubber-soled shower shoe from a prisoner swinging with two hands with all his energy." Prisoners who refused the shower shoeing received a more conventional beating of kicks and punches that often resulted in serious injury.
Cox said the attackers preyed on vulnerable prisoners, some of whom were in the jail only briefly. The inmates who were victimized tended to be smaller and, obviously, not prepared for what they were facing," he said. Some ... were brought in for an appearance that day. One was there for five hours and walked away with a beating.

A list released by county commissioners on April 5, 2005, showed that 46 prisoners were hospitalized for injuries in 2003 and 2004. Most of these we felt would be a result of inmate (against) inmate action, but we're not sure that they all were," said Commissioner Brad Cober. So far, seven current and former prisoners have been charged with crimes ranging from aggravated assault to coercion, and more indictments are possible, said investigators. Jail officials seem to be avoiding responsibility for allowing the assaults to occur over such an extended period of time.
Overcrowding likely contributed to the jail's violent atmosphere. Built to house 45 prisoners in 1981, the jail held a daily average of 118 in 2004. To ease the numbers, county officials are considering awarding good-time credits to prisoners who stay out of trouble. A committee formed to examine the issue made a recommendation on July 5, 2005.

Another concern is why something wasn't done sooner to quell the violence. SCJ Warden Tim Mapes warned county officials of rising violence in October 2004, saying the trend would continue unless those responsible were prosecuted. However, Somerset County Sheriff Carl Brown and District Attorney Jerry Spangler both failed to act. Mapes ultimately went to Cox for help, resulting in the March 2005 indictments.

At a special meeting of the prison board on March 21, 2005, Brown and Spangler said they weren't aware of the situation at the jail. Brown specifically noted that his office hasn't investigated incidents at SCJ since April 2004 when the county conducted a drug raid at the jail without involving the sheriff's department. The commissioners didn't buy it.
That's a public statement on October 5 that there were issues in that facility that we could not get prosecuted by the chief law enforcement officer in the county or the highest ranking law enforcement officer in the county," said Cober. Commissioner Pamela Tokar-Ickes also railed against the pair in an earlier statement saying the sheriff and district attorney were aware of the situation at the jail but failed to act because of turf issues, personality clashes, political motivations, and perceived conflicts of interest.

If conditions at the jail haven't improved by May 31, 2005when the state Department of Corrections plans to conduct its annual inspectionSCJ could be decertified, said deputy DOC press secretary Sheila Moore. Decertification means that the jail could no longer house prisoners with sentences of more than six months. It's unprecedented," said Moore. We've never had to do it before." During its last inspection in April 2004, SCJ failed to meet nearly half of the state's 25 minimum standards.

Other Pennsylvania jails are similarly troubled. In March 2005, staph infections killed three female prisoners1 at the Burlington County Minimum Security Facility and 2 at the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ). Other problems also abound at ACJ. On May 3, 2005, a prisoner used a shoelace to hang himself in his cell; it was the jail's second suicide of the year. A week earlier, a prisoner was caught trying to escape down the side of the jail on a rope made of bed linens. (Another prisoner attempting the same feat in 1997 fell 150 feet to his death.)

In addition, a federal grand jury recently indicted Allegheny County Sheriff Pete Defazio. Two of the sheriff's high-ranking deputiesFrank Scharelli and Richard Stewarthave already been indicted. They were charged in May 2005 with lying to the grand jury about fund raising efforts on Defazio's behalf.

Another stewpot of controversy is the Westmoreland County prison. On April 27, 2005, a female prisoner at the jail set the contents of her cell on fire, injuring two guards. The incident rekindled complaints about Warden John Walton, known for his tyrannical management style. During his despotic reign, Walton has banned visitors who park in the wrong spot from visiting for 90 days; crammed enough extra bunks into the jail to nearly double capacity; and caused chaos by releasing a prisoner in his florescent orange jail jumper with the word prison" emblazoned across the back. (The man was promptly rearrested.) PLN reports extensively on Pennsylvania jails and prisons. See indexes for more.

Sources: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, AP,,,,, Pittsburgh Tribune Review,,

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