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Pennsylvania County Jail System Overcrowded, Under-Regulated

by David M. Reutter

Almost everyone with experience on the incarceration side of America's criminal justice system will tell you they would rather do time in prison than in a jail. The primary reason is that the overall conditions of confinement are better and less restrictive in prisons. The transient nature of a jail population makes it difficult for prisoners to improve conditions through legal challenges, as they are often released or transferred elsewhere before they can act; also, jails do not have the programs and resources available at prisons, which are designed for a longer-term sentenced population.

Most non prisoners have no concern for conditions in prisons or jails, assuming they will never be subjected to them. "I just did not care at all about what it was like. But when I went to prison, my whole view of prison and people in prison changed," said Joe Kramer, who served almost four months in Pennsylvania's Dauphin County Jail for assault and violating probation on a marijuana possession charge. "I still think about it to this day. I've had nightmares, and waking up in the middle of the night," he stated. The experience of incarceration in our nation's penal system can change hearts and minds.

Many of Pennsylvania's county jails are also called county prisons, as a sentence of two years or less, and sometimes up to five years, results in serving time at a county facility rather than a state prison. On any given day more than 30,000 people are held in county prisons or jails in Pennsylvania; annually, over 100,000 people pass through such facilities.

When prisoners are sent to the state prison system they can expect the same conditions and rules to prevail. While there may be variances, they are nothing like those encountered in county jails. In Pennsylvania, location is everything. Depending upon where the crime was committed arrestees can land in a dilapidated jail built in the 1850's, or in a newly-constructed state-of-the-art facility.

Joe Kramer claimed that while he was held in the Dauphin County Jail he was assaulted by guards, had to eat meals two feet from the cell's toilet, and witnessed "pathetic" medical care. His experience was only unique in that it was not an egregious case that merited media attention, as he was merely a background interviewee for a news report. Kramer's experience, in fact, was fairly typical. Other prisoners have endured far worse.

State officials inspect county jails for compliance with standards set forth under Title 37, Chapter 95 of the Pennsylvania Code. The counties hate such annual inspections. In August 2005, the County Commissioners Association passed a resolution asking for an entity other than the state to inspect the county facilities. The resolution stated that relations between inspectors and "many" of the county jails were adversarial.

"We tend to shoot the messenger," said Tom Schlager, a Pennsylvania Department of Corrections inspector who was previously warden at three county prisons. "Sometimes when we hear what the realities are, we don't like it."

Part of the adversarial relationship may result from inspectors seeing the same uncorrected violations at jails year after year. While the state conducts inspections, it has no enforcement ability; it merely inspects and issues a report to the county.

The only current enforcement mechanisms are through the mainstream media and prisoner litigation, which is aided by the inspections. "If you have an inspection report that continues to show that you're not complying, or you're not making any effort to correct those issues, absolutely it would be fuel for litigation," said Julio M. Algarin, warden of the Montgomery County Correctional Facility.

While conditions at Pennsylvania's county jails vary wildly, one thing is consistent among such facilities: Overcrowding. And when overcrowding is combined with the fiscal pinch on the county purse caused by rising jail costs, a host of serious problems and deficiencies arise.

Pack 'em In or Ship 'em Out

On average, Pennsylvania's 67 counties spend about 9 percent of their budgets on jail expenses; only two do not exceed their jail's design capacity or send prisoners to other facilities to be housed. Those two counties, Armstrong and McKean, are extremely small rural areas that maintain 131- and 69-bed jails, respectively. This is reflective of low crime due to low population levels in such rural locations.

The other 65 counties, including some rural ones, face serious jail overcrowding problems. The counties handle overcrowding in one of two ways: They either erect beds in the jail's day room area to expand available bedspace, or they pay to transfer prisoners to other facilities. The latter alternative costs, on average, $65 per prisoner per day.

Several counties have attempted to build themselves out of the jail overcrowding problem – they either add on to their existing jail or build a new one. Usually, such projects result in the county issuing long-term bonds, or financing the debt on the market.

Northampton County found its 662-bed jail to be insufficient. The county developed a four-phase expansion plan that would increase available jail bed-space to a capacity of 1,400-1,600. The construction cost? $65,000 per bed. In early 2006 the first phase of the project increased the number of beds to 819 at a cost of $23 million. By February 2007 the jail was full, and the county began sending its overflow prisoner population to other counties.

Now Northampton County officials are trying to determine how to finance the $38 million cost of the second phase of the expansion plan. As for rolling the dice to build more jail beds that are quickly filled, Northampton County Executive John Stoffa said, "It's frightful when you look at the cost."

Butler County officials are in the process of developing a new 512-bed jail with a $30 million price tag. It was anticipated to open by October 2007, but delays in steel delivery and cost overruns related to building the facility in a crowded urban area have set that date back, possibly to April 2008. The delays and overruns have caused the county and its contractor to sue each other.

An evaluation of the Somerset County Jail released in July 2007 found extreme overcrowding and management problems. The Institute for Law and Policy Planning, which conducted the evaluation, recommended moving some minimum security prisoners into work release or electronic monitoring programs.

Among Butler, Mercer, Beaver and Armstrong counties, local officials have sought bonds totaling $102 million to build more jail space. Mercer County increased its jail space by 150 percent, but nine months later found itself at full capacity again. Over the past decade Pennsylvania counties have spent $1 billion to renovate or expand their jails or construct new ones.

"You build another cell, and it will be full," stated Terry L. Davis, director of Dauphin County's adult probation and parole services. The cost of adding jail beds doesn't end there. Once built, the counties have other expenses to consider, such as personnel, programs and other operational costs.

State guidelines require one guard for every 15 prisoners. Thus, with an increasing jail population comes a concomitant need to hire additional guards, which results in higher staff expenses. In October 2007 it was reported that the Northampton County Jail's staffing costs had risen due to the need for guards to patrol areas not usually used for housing prisoners, including two hallways and the gymnasium, where bunk beds had been installed to accommodate the population overflow.

Counties have been reluctant to expend funds to hire more jail employees. At the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center, guard Debra Minnick said she keeps watch over 100 prisoners. When a guard in another wing steps away for some reason, she must then oversee 200 prisoners.

The staff shortage creates a vicious cycle of increased stress that results in guards calling in sick. With jails already understaffed, such absences lead to forced overtime, which not only makes work even more stressful for guards but also leads to higher employment costs. In Allegheny County alone, overtime for jail staff was $2.1 million in 2004. By 2005 those costs had increased to $3 million.

They say that pressure can burst a pipe. The pressure of overcrowding and staff shortages in Pennsylvania jails results in stress that translates to violence being perpetrated by both prisoners and guards.

Cycle of Violence

"We open 24 cell doors, and 48 inmates come out. If they want to be orderly, they will walk to their tables to wait for the chow line," said former Lancaster County prison guard Kerry Vogt. "The only reason they are orderly is because they allow it."

On March 3, 2005, a group of prisoners at the Chester County Prison became upset over mistreatment of another prisoner. For over two hours they refused to return to their cells. Wearing improvised body armor, and with at least one having what appeared to be a sharpened weapon wrapped in a bandage, the prisoners readied for a confrontation.

To make it harder for the guards, the prisoners flooded the cellblock and squirted baby oil on the floor. But their resolve evaporated when guards charged in firing flash bangs and rubber pellets; the prisoners' only response was to throw food, trays and debris before retreating to their cells. No one was injured.

The Chester County jail uprising was a rare display of prisoners united against abuse. Martin Luther King, Jr. once famously said that an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. That lesson was vividly displayed when the world learned of the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal in April 2004, which put America's brand of prisoner mistreatment on front pages around the globe.

The lead perpetrator in that scandal, Army Reserve Spc. Charles A. Graner, Jr., was formerly employed as a guard at Pennsylvania's Fayette County Prison and at SCI Greene, a state prison, where he had been accused of abuse. Prisoners at Abu Ghraib were beaten, threatened with electric shocks and subjected to acts of sexual humiliation. Americans retorted that "that doesn't happen in our prisons." Actually, yes it does. In fact, the brutality imposed upon Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib was the same as that imposed in prisons and jails here at home.

Mifflin County jail prisoner Dustin Zimmerman, 19, learned that lesson the hard way when he annoyed guards by kicking his cell door. The guards took violent action. "Once the inmate had been removed from his cell, he was placed in a restraint chair," according to a state police report about the September 11, 2005 incident. "At this point, the inmate was allegedly shocked with an electronic body immobilizing device without provocation."

Mifflin County jail warden Bernie Zook said the guard who did the shocking, Brian E. Taylor, had been trained better than that. Upon firing Taylor, who was later charged with official oppression and disorderly conduct, Zook said, "It was poor judgment on his part." For their part, the guards could have decided that Zimmerman was exercising poor judgment when he kicked his cell door, meriting a discussion about why he was engaging in such behavior instead of forcibly removing, restraining and needlessly shocking him.

Reminiscent of the sexual humiliation at Abu Ghraib, two women arrested in Philadelphia on suspicion of drug possession were ordered by police officer Norberto Cappas to put on a "sex show" for him. The women were forced to kiss, touch each other and expose their breasts in their jail cell for Cappas' enjoyment. One of the women has since filed a lawsuit, and the city's lawyers have admitted that she never should have been detained in the first place. Cappas was found guilty in an administrative hearing of lying during an investigation and conduct unbecoming an officer, and was fired in June 2007.

State policies require each county jail to report major incidents within 48 hours. Between 2004 and 2006, Pennsylvania county officials reported 584 incidents of physical assaults by prisoners on staff. They reported no incidents of guards attacking prisoners. However, that does not mean such incidents don't occur.

No one is really surprised when prisoners assault other prisoners or staff, since prisoners, by their very status, have engaged in anti-social behavior that required their removal from society. But when a guard brutalizes a prisoner different questions arise – and the answers to those questions may vary. For example, the guard could be inexperienced or poorly trained. While employed as a guard at Lancaster County, Kerry Vogt said he kept a list of other guards who came and went. "There were well over a hundred," he noted.

Vogt reasoned the high turnover rate was attributed to unsafe working conditions. "Feces are thrown at guards all the time," he said. "If [the prisoners] don't want to [be cooperative], the guards are outnumbered, and there is no way to stop them."

Yet guards, who are corrections professionals, are supposed to act in a humane manner when dealing with unruly prisoners. After all, that is not only their job but also demonstrates to prisoners how rational people deal with adversity in a peaceful manner, which entails communication before physical confrontation. Inexperience may play a role in some abusive treatment by jail staff; however, such abuse is more often inflicted by vengeful, sadistic guards who wield power over vulnerable people.

In April 2006, the Luzerne County Prison Board fired Capt. John "Vito" Corridoni, an 18-year veteran. Corridoni had ordered guards to remove prisoner Jahkel Lamar from a special housing unit cell and place him in a chair while handcuffed behind his back. Corridoni then repeatedly slapped Lamar, whose complaints of abuse were confirmed by 12 other guards.
Corridoni was also accused of giving preferential treatment, including pizzas and phone access, to a prisoner who was an alleged mob associate, and was further accused of ordering guards to force a handcuffed jail prisoner to lie face down in dirty shower and toilet overflow water.

As of June 2007, Dauphin County Prison officials were investigating eight allegations of guard-on-prisoner assaults, which ranged from punches and kicks to verbal abuse and humiliation. The acts of abuse shared common traits: They occurred at night, away from video cameras, and were not preceded by violence from the victimized prisoners. "I am concerned about the number of allegations at this point of the year, and we will investigate every claim," stated District Attorney Edward Marsico.

Dauphin County prison guard Daniel C. Hosler was arrested in July 2007 and charged with assaulting several prisoners. Video surveillance footage showed Hosler striking prisoner Lisa M. Adams' head against a metal door frame; he was also accused of beating a handcuffed prisoner.

On July 2, 2007, the Westmoreland County Prison Board fired guard Scott Rogers, 38, a 10-year veteran. Rogers' dismissal was the result of his making prisoners walk and bark like dogs, sing nursery rhymes and recite the alphabet, and kneel in uncomfortable positions with their foreheads pressed against the wall and their hands behind their heads. He was charged with three counts of official oppression and released on $50,000 bond.

On September 5, 2007, Westmoreland County Judge Richard McCormick, Jr. noticed that prisoner Shawn Crider had black eyes and "visibly fresh bruises" on his face. Upon questioning, Crider stated he was beaten by three guards while handcuffed in the jail's booking area. The district attorney's office later decided that Crider's injuries were due to a fall, based largely on statements from the accused jail employees, and declined to press charges.

Not all guards are overtly violent when confronted with unruly prisoners. Instead, they ensure that "prisoner justice" takes place. On March 17, 2007, two Chester County guards, John Hampton, 26, and Charles Goodman, 34, opened the cell door of prisoner Mario Banegas and allowed another prisoner, Christopher S. Gilchrist, into the cell. The beating that Gilchrist inflicted on Banegas resulted in a broken rib and eight stitches for head injuries; Banegas was beaten unconscious. The reason for the retaliatory attack? Banegas had been written up several times for throwing feces at staff and other prisoners.

After charging Hampton and Goodman with aggravated assault and criminal conspiracy, District Attorney Joseph W. Carrol stated, "I can appreciate some of the frustration the officers felt, but as a society, we cannot tolerate the mistreatment of inmates." According to witnesses, Hampton laughed while Banegas was being beaten; both Hampton and Goodman later wrote a false incident report stating Banegas had hurt himself by banging his head on the cell door.

In February 2007, Beaver County Jail warden William Schouppe said his nightshift guards "would rather slit your throat than look at you. These people are easily worse than the inmates." Schouppe was himself suspended the following month for poor management after an investigation into drug smuggling, sexual misconduct and excessive use of force at the jail.

Guards Emulate Prisoners

Investigations, arrests, suspensions and firings of numerous Pennsylvania jail employees prove a claim that is often made by prisoner advocates: Prisoners are no different than most people except they've been caught while others, who may be just as guilty of criminal acts, haven't. Put more succinctly, there is a thin line between the keepers and the kept.

In April 2004, Northumberland County officials rounded up seven guards suspected of smuggling contraband money, drugs and communication devices into the county's prison. Charges were dropped against one guard and another was acquitted at trial. The other five received probated sentences and fines; one of the guards, Kazimir Grohowski, was granted a new trial in August 2007.

Somerset County jail guard Jeremy Lensbouer, 30, went from enforcing justice to receiving it when he was charged with conspiracy, possession of a controlled substance, possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver, and providing contraband to a prisoner. The controlled substance that Lensbouer tried to deliver was heroin. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced on May 8, 2007 to serve 2 to 5 years in prison
Lensbouer is not the only guard who has brought heroin into Pennsylvania jails. In November 2005, a jury found former Lancaster County prison guard Willie Freddy Franklin guilty of smuggling 12 packets of heroin, plus cigarettes and lighters, into the facility. In January 2006, Franklin also received a sentence of 2 to 5 years.

Some prison employees take an easier route to make extra money – rather than bringing in contraband, they just steal from the Inmate Welfare Account. That is exactly what Philadelphia County deputy warden Joseph J. Glynn, Jr. did. He embezzled approximately $14,800 by writing "checks for his personal benefit from the account," according to news reports and a federal indictment. He received three years probation in November 2006 and was ordered to pay restitution.

While the root of evil is said to be money, sex gets many people into trouble, too – particularly when personal relationships develop between guards and prisoners. The first cardinal rule taught to jail staff is to avoid such situations, but that becomes difficult when guards and prisoners interact in close quarters on a day-to-day basis. Not all such relationships are consensual, however.

Seven guards and a kitchen worker at the Monroe County Correctional Facility were charged in March and June 2007 with engaging in illegal sexual contact with prisoners or providing contraband in the form of cell phones. Former guards Dana Simpson and Roodney Ulysse pleaded no contest to the charges, while Yvonne Lockard and Karen Stone plead guilty.
Charges are still pending against former guards Frank Bell, Mark Gutshall and Richard Chimalza. Kitchen worker Misty Mate pleaded guilty in June 2007 to a contraband charge and was sentenced to one year probation and a $500 fine. Jail warden David Keenhold resigned following the indictments, and Lt. Steve Foster was fired.

In a separate incident, former Monroe County prisoner Elizabeth Aquino filed a lawsuit alleging that guard Yvonne Santiago brought her "mind-altering" drugs and induced her to engage in various lesbian sex acts. The suit was settled for an undisclosed amount in July 2007 after the court denied in part the defendants' motion to dismiss. See: Aquino v. County of Monroe, USDC MD PA, Case No. 3:05-cv-02468-TIV-KH; Slip opinion, 2007 WL 1544980 (May 24, 2007).

In Allegheny County, 13 jail guards were arrested in a sex scandal in 2004 that involved trading contraband to prisoners in exchange for sexual favors. Seven guards pleaded guilty or were convicted, four were acquitted and two were pending trial as of earlier this year. [See: PLN, Dec. 2004, p.23; July 2007, p.7].

Westmoreland County Prison Lt. Timothy Jones resigned his position in May 2006 after prison officials confiscated letters he wrote to a female prisoner; he reportedly had the prisoner taken from her cellblock to his office so he could meet with her privately. Also, in January 2006, a charge of institutional sexual assault was brought against Bedford County jail guard William Robert Lewis, Jr., 52, who allegedly forced a prisoner to have sex with him in a bathroom. Lewis contended the sexual encounter was consensual; he was quoted as saying, "I don't know what's going on – I was just trying to do my job."

Even when misconduct charges are lodged against jail staff, some argue the prisoner has the greater culpability. This was aptly illustrated when charges were filed against a prisoner and a guard at the Montgomery County Jail. Both were charged with bribery, and both were beneficiaries of plea bargains.

The prisoner, Juan Rosado, agreed to testify that he had paid guard Otis L. Wright to bring him a cell phone. In return, Rosado received a one-and-a-half to three-year state prison sentence. Wright, however, was allowed to plead to misdemeanor charges of contraband and conspiracy, and received just six years probation and 100 hours of community service.
Prosecutors said the sentence disparity was justified because Rosado went out of his way to "circumvent" the rules of the jail. Nothing was said about the guard's greater responsibility to uphold the public's trust and enforce the law.

Troubled Counties

Whenever you document widespread problems, there are some places that are more problematic than others. The Allegheny County Jail, for example, has more than its fair share of trouble. Then again, aside from Philadelphia County, Allegheny County operates the largest jail in Pennsylvania, with 2,850 beds and a $45 million annual budget.

In January 2006, four Allegheny County jail guards and two former guards were among eight people indicted for smuggling drugs and other contraband into the facility. The grand jury presentments detailed "scenes of drug dealing and double-dealing, secret codes and sexual favors, payoffs and paybacks, intrigue and ingenuity, all swirling around criminals and corrections officers acting in concert," according to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article.

The grand jury found that from 2001 to 2005, tens of thousands of dollars changed hands in a smuggling scheme that involved six guards, a jail nurse and numerous prisoners. The jail employees would receive up to $1,000 for each package of marijuana, tobacco, heroin, ecstasy, cocaine or OxyContin picked up from an outside source and delivered.

One prisoner informant told the grand jury that guard David Bey was "the man to see if you could meet his price," but that he "had a reputation for either shorting" the package, substituting an inferior grade of marijuana for what had been delivered, or delivering packages much later than promised. Bey pleaded guilty to a reduced charge and was placed on 30 days probation in June 2007.

Guard Daniel K. Kovacs was paid $1,000 per package. Those deliveries contained four ounces of marijuana and two ounces of tobacco, plus Kovacs got a free massage from the tanning salon where he picked up the packages. The prisoner who arranged the deliveries cut Kovacs out of the deal after he made sexual advances towards the prisoner's outside contact. Kovacs, the son of a retired city narcotics detective, then retaliated against the unnamed prisoner by subjecting him to strip searches, confiscating his legal property, and filing false disciplinary reports against him.

In making 20 recommendations for changes at the Allegheny County Jail, the grand jury cited "pervasive common themes of security lapses, disregard of institutional rules, and an inconsistent enforcement of those rules." To curb the "criminally corrupt minority," the grand jury recommended more advanced drug-scanning technology, increased staffing for female strip searches, more frequent use of canine units for random searches, adding cell phones and other communication devices to the list of contraband, mandatory random drug testing of both prisoners and staff, and enforcing strip searches of guards who leave the facility during shift hours.

With staff preoccupied with drug smuggling and sex, other prisoners at the Allegheny County Jail used such distractions to gain their freedom.
In February 2005, Mikal Abdul slid in with a group of prisoners being released on bond. Abdul, who was being held on assault charges, walked out with the group of releasees, whose identities were not verified before they were set free. In the two years prior to Abdul's escape at least six prisoners had likewise absconded. From 1997 to 2006, three other prisoners tried to climb down a rope from a jail window. Two of them died when their homemade rope broke, dropping 17 stories to their deaths.

One can only wonder what the jail's Chief Deputy was doing while his staff was engaging in illegal activity and prisoners were walking out the front door or plummeting from windows. He was getting his own piece of the pie, of course.

With the Allegheny County Jail overflowing with prisoners, additional housing had to be found. For his support to create an alternative housing program at an old shopping center, Chief Deputy Dennis Skosnik accepted $3,500 in cash and tickets to a Las Vegas show and college football games. In exchange, Skosnik promised to tip off an unnamed party to real estate opportunities in upcoming sheriff's sales, arrange to have the alternative jail inspected by county officials, attempt to secure a contract with the county chief executive's office, make introductions with a judge on the county's Jail Oversight Board, and get the Sheriff to voice support for the project.

After Skosnik requested the bribes, the other party informed federal authorities. On November 18, 2005, the U.S. Attorney's office issued an indictment charging Skosnik with bribery and money laundering. Skosnik was also charged with fixing criminal cases and parking tickets, coaching a witness to lie to the grand jury, wire fraud, pressuring employees to contribute to the Sheriff's campaign, stealing some of those contributions, and other abuses of power. Skosnik was sentenced in June 2006 to 63 months in prison and three years post-release supervision, and ordered to pay $500 in fines.

The Allegheny County Jail isn't the only facility where staff have abused their positions for personal gain. Since the late 1990's until their March 2004 arrests, Lackawanna County officials used prisoners as their "personal labor force," a grand jury found. Warden Thomas P. Gilhooley, Deputy Warden Robert A. Hilborn, Sgt. Anthony Veno and Lt. Leonard Bogdanski were charged with theft of services and violating state ethics law.

According to the grand jury, "Annual jobs performed by prison inmates included decorating Gilhooley's home for Christmas by hanging lights on three trees outside his home, placing a 'Santa' on the roof and wreath on the chimney, and setting wooden reindeer in the front yard."

Bogdanski had prisoners gut and rebuild two rooms in his house. Both Bogdanski and Gilhooley used prisoner labor to repair their vehicles damaged in collisions. For the estimated $1,600 to $2,500 worth of repair work, the prisoners were paid $100 to $150.

Veno had prisoners completely restore his 1957 Chevy at the jail. The work was described as major amounts of time by the grand jury. Bogdanski also had prisoners perform repairs on his 1960 Thunderbird. In fact, all four prison officials had prisoners do general maintenance and detailing on their personal vehicles by using materials from the prison's general supply inventory.

In return for their work the prisoners received extra furlough time, food, favors and cash payments. Those arrangements also netted a bribery charge for Gilhooley. The grand jury summarized the case by finding "the use of inmate labor for the personal benefit of prison officials " was simply a privilege afforded by these officials to themselves.

"Fantastical" Healthcare?

While some Pennsylvania jail prisoners have been abused or exploited by staff, others were more concerned with obtaining adequate medical care. For example, nearly every prison and jail in the nation is dealing with the threat of Methicillan-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA), a dangerous type of drug resistant staph infection. Overcrowding exacerbates the threat of MRSA and other skin rashes, such as scabies.

On March 20, 2005, Allegheny County jail prisoners Amy Sartori, 31, and Valeria Whetsell, 51, died due to MRSA infections. A lawsuit filed by their estates alleges that guards and healthcare officials at the facility exhibited deliberate indifference to their condition. "Adequate care would have kept these people alive," said John P. Goodrich, one of the attorneys representing the deceased prisoners' estates.

Before their deaths both women had complained about severe respiratory problems. Despite those complaints, jail guards forced them to use cleaning products with strong fumes. On the day Sartori and Whetsell died, a guard called the infirmary to tell a nurse that Sartori was vomiting blood. Because shift change was nearing the nurse refused to treat Sartori, telling her to lie down. Other guards allegedly turned up the television volume to block out her cries for help.

Sartori and Whetsell were eventually taken to the infirmary and later to a hospital, but by then it was too late. The coroner's office initially attributed their deaths to the fumes of the cleaning products; later testing found that untreated MRSA infections were responsible. The lawsuit filed against county officials, which was removed to federal court, is ongoing. See: Howard v. Rustin, USDC WD PA, Case No. 2:06-cv-00200-NBF.

On January 10, 2005, a jury awarded two former Bucks County Jail prisoners, Kevin Keller and Benjamin Martin, $1.2 million after their staph infections became so bad they had to be hospitalized to undergo a series of operations. The judge held that the jury could conclude the county's public health department, which provides medical services at the jail, "simply ignored" the prisoners' conditions. [See: PLN, July 2005, p.20].

More recently, in August 2007 ten prisoners who tested positive for MRSA at the Lehigh County Prison were placed in isolation and another was sent to a local hospital. In September 2007, two guards at the Allegheny County Jail contracted MRSA; within the preceding 18 months, twenty guards at the facility had staph infections, including ten cases of MRSA.

To reduce the expense of costly medical care, including treatment for MRSA outbreaks, 23 Pennsylvania counties have hired PrimeCare Medical, Inc., a for-profit firm, to provide jail healthcare services.

In Northampton County alone, 16 prisoner lawsuits were filed between 1999 and 2005 alleging lack of care by PrimeCare. Thirteen suits were pending against the company in 2006. As for the reason behind the number of lawsuits, PrimeCare's vice president of operations stated, "There's no real rhyme or reason. It's just part of the business." Apparently for "no rhyme or reason," PrimeCare paid $150,000 in 2003 to settle a lawsuit claiming the company had dispensed incorrect medications, delayed access to medical services and failed to provide prescriptions.

A Lackawanna County grand jury investigating prisoner abuse in 2004 found that a PrimeCare nurse had not reported injuries resulting from beatings by guards. According to the grand jury, one prisoner had to wait several weeks to see a doctor to examine him for broken facial bones. The grand jury report determined that PrimeCare had "failed to adequately treat inmates for serious medical conditions" at the jail.

When Trent Apple was imprisoned in the Northampton County Prison for aggravated assault with a vehicle stemming from a drunk-driving accident, he told a PrimeCare physician that he needed daily injections of Copaxone to treat his muscular sclerosis. PrimeCare refused the injections for the five months Apple was incarcerated, saving the company about $4,500.

Before going to prison, Apple's disease was in remission; he could walk without assistance and work full time as a mechanic. After his release Apple spent a month in the hospital, was unable to resume employment, and was deemed fully disabled by the Social Security Administration. He received an undisclosed settlement from PrimeCare in October 2005. See: Apple v. PrimeCare Medical, Inc., USDC ED PA, Case No. 2:05-cv-01530-GP.

"If they're doing it cheaper, it's usually because they're cutting something, and those cuts have consequences for the quality of care," said David Fathi, former senior staff counsel for the ACLU's National Prison Project, commenting on for-profit healthcare firms. Nevertheless, Northampton County renewed PrimeCare's jail contract in August 2007, paying the company approximately $15 million over the next five years.

Pregnant women in Pennsylvania jails have serious reason for concern, too. In Allegheny County, 15 to 20 female prisoners in labor were shackled to the hospital gurney. As they were about to deliver their baby, the guards would leave the shackled woman and go outside. In May 2006 the Sheriff ordered the shackling policy to be discontinued.

While those women were restrained, they at least can be thankful they were able to give birth in a sterile environment with medical professionals to render care. That right was not afforded to Lackawanna County jail prisoner Shakira Staten, 22, who gave birth in her cell on July 10, 2007.

At around 12:10 a.m., Staten experienced labor pains; after 12:50 a.m. she reported contractions were occurring every two to ten minutes. She was placed in a camera-monitored cell against her protests. Guards visited her several times "to make her comfortable and check on her."

The guards said she was yelling, banging on the door and banging herself off the wall, the warden wrote. "[Staten] continued yelling and banging for over an hour, at times throwing wet toilet paper on the camera lens."

"I was in excruciating pain. It was terrible. I wouldn't wish this on anyone, what I went through," said Staten. "Every time, I was pounding so much, screaming at the top of my lungs. Every time there was a contraction I had to sit down and [work] through it on the bed." Staten said she blocked the cell camera to get the guards' attention, and was screaming to be taken to a hospital.

The guards told her she was not in labor. At one point they left the door to her cell ajar and Staten crawled into the hallway, telling the guards the baby was coming. They carried her back into the cell, saying, "you're not going to have a baby in this place."

Toward the end of her labor, Staten sat on the toilet as the baby's head "crowned" or became visible. After the contraction passed she moved towards the cell door. She took off her pants and leaned against the door with a towel around her waist. While she was leaning, the baby's head pushed out. "The rest of the body slipped out, and she hit the ground," Staten said.

With the umbilical cord still attached, Staten held her baby up to the window for the guards to see. Only then did the jail staff scramble to help. The umbilical cord had to be removed from around the baby's neck, and a female guard cut the cord with her fingernails.

Afterwards, county officials initially said the employees had reacted to the situation "fantastically," and defended the jail's medical procedures. Catherine Wise, with the Pennsylvania Prison Society, disagreed. "How hard is it to say that when she's in labor, she goes to the hospital?" Wise asked. Jail documents released in August 2007 revealed that a nurse had ignored a supervisor's orders and the shift commander failed to notify his superiors about Staten's condition. The nurse, Dale Turner, was prohibited from working at the jail as a result of the incident. The jail's warden, Janine Donate, resigned a week after Staten filed a federal lawsuit, which is currently in mediation. Staten's newborn daughter, Samiyah, survived the in-cell birth. See: Staten v. Lackawanna County, USDC MD PA, Case No. 4:07-CV-01329-JFM.

Women held at other county jails have also experienced problems. As one female prisoner at the Riverside Correctional Facility in Philadelphia put it, "If we were animals, the Humane Society would step in."

Privatization Unproductive

To avoid having to pay the substantial salaries, benefits and related costs associated with employing jail staff, and with defending against and settling prisoner lawsuits, in 1995 Delaware County contracted with the GEO Group, formerly known as Wackenhut Corrections, to run its jail. The county facility, which is the only privately-operated jail in the state, is named after prison superintendent George W. Hill.

The people responsible for bringing in GEO said it was done to lower costs and improve operations. "Government is not efficient," stated Wallace Nunn, former Delaware County Council Chairman. "That's not a knock on Delaware County or the federal government or anybody. You take the profit incentive out of something and it produces some degree of inefficiency."

The county had planned to spend $80 million to construct the 1,883 bed jail. GEO built it for $50 million, providing the county with substantial savings. In terms of operating costs, county council chairman Andrew Reilly said GEO saves the county $1 million annually over what it would cost if the jail was publicly run.

Nunn said he was particularly proud of the fact that the George W. Hill Correctional Facility (GHCF) was the first jail in Pennsylvania to receive accreditation by the American Correctional Association (ACA). Critics, however, find no substance in ACA accreditation.

"It doesn't mean a damn thing," remarked Ken Kopczynski, executive director of the Private Corrections Institute, an anti-private prison organization. A 2003 study by Abt Associates, titled "Governments' Management of Private Prisons," describes ACA accreditation as "not an outcomes-based performance goal. Rather, ACA standards primarily prescribe procedures." During a 2006 conference in Austin, Texas, an ACA representative candidly admitted that the agency's accreditation does not constitute oversight of detention facilities.

"For the most part, the [ACA] standards prescribe neither the goals that ought to be achieved nor the indicators that would let officials know if they are making progress toward those goals over time," the Abt Associates report noted.While GEO may have proper procedures in place at GHCF, the outcomes of those procedures are not reflected in ACA inspections but are revealed through real life – or sometimes death – experiences for prisoners housed at the jail.

"They're supposed to give out this thing, it's called care packages.
We're short on something they're supposed to give us – soap, toilet paper – we just got the water fixed. The water was broke for six months. There's guys that haven't cleaned their cells for six months," complained a GHCF prisoner who requested to be identified only as Mark. "The people come in and out, they don't clean their blankets. They give you no cleaning materials."

Despite such unhygienic conditions, which make MRSA outbreaks much more likely, the ACA found the GEO-run jail 100 percent compliant on mandatory standards and 97 percent compliant on non-mandatory standards during its 2004 accreditation audit.

While the county may be saving $1 million a year in operational costs, GEO has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle lawsuits. In March 2006, the company paid $100,000 to settle a wrongful death claim stemming from a toxic dose of the high blood-pressure drug Verapamil that was given to GHCF prisoner Rosalyn Atkinson, 25.

In May 2005, GEO shelled out $125,000 to the family of John Focht, 43, who hung himself with his boot laces from a cell grating. Focht was a known suicide risk and was supposed to be monitored every 15 minutes.
Evidence suggested he had been dead about an hour before his body was found; GEO denied any wrongdoing by jail staff. See: Estate of Focht, Jr., v. Wackenhut Corrections, USDC ED PA, Case No. 2:04-cv-01778-RK.

"It seems awfully suspicious when somebody is willing to pay out $125,000 in a case where somebody killed themselves," said William M. DiMascio, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, of the settlement in the Focht case. "It just seems pretty obvious that something has gone awry."

Things definitely went awry when 26-year-old Brian Sullivan died of a heroin overdose in his cell at GHCF in April 2005. It was his second drug overdose at the facility. The first overdose occurred five months earlier; following that incident, Sullivan's mother asked GEO's warden to take action.

"I think you need to take a close look at some of your correction officers, and I also think that they should be screened every time they enter the building because the drugs are getting in somehow," wrote Maureen Sullivan. "From what I hear from some of the officers themselves, it is through some of the guards." The Sullivan family filed a $500,000 wrongful death suit against GEO, which was settled confidentially in July 2006. See: Estate of Brian Sullivan v. The GEO Group, Inc., USDC ED PA, Case No. 2:05-cv-05354-RK; Order denying in part motion to dismiss, 2005 WL 3447642 (Dec. 15, 2005).

Between 2001 and 2006 six prisoners died of unnatural causes at GHCF, including two suicides and one homicide. Those deaths included the case of Cassandra "Sandy" Morgan, 38, a mentally ill prisoner who died on March 29, 2006 due to medical issues related to a thyroid condition. She was being held on shoplifting charges. Although Morgan's family had repeatedly tried to contact GEO officials to notify them of her medical condition, they were "virtually ignored" according to Harold Goodman, the family's attorney. Their lawsuit, which alleges deliberate indifference to Morgan's medical needs, is still pending. See: Morgan-Mapp v. GEO Group, USDC ED PA, Case No. 2:07-cv-02949-BMS.

GEO officials also have been losing a battle of drugs, cell phones and other contraband being introduced into GHCF. They are aware that guards are involved in the smuggling. "We know who the players are," said jail Deputy Superintendent John Reilly. "It's just a question of following them every day, pursuing them every day and getting rid of them." Reilly stated that some guards at the facility use female co-workers as "mules" to smuggle contraband into the jail in their body cavities.

The correlation between contraband trafficking and guard involvement may have its roots in low pay. "Their whole purpose is to keep costs down, and their biggest cost is personnel," said Kopczynski, referring to the business model of private prisons. "It's not about cost savings. It's about taking money out of the pockets of the employees and sticking it into investors' pockets." Starting wages for GEO guards at GHCF were $11.24/hour in mid-2006, which was "still a little low" according to Michael Pelleriti, president of the Delaware County Prison Employees Independent Union.

Issues such as low pay, which leads to high employee turnover and inexperienced staff, has resulted in other operational mishaps at GHCF. Between 2002 and 2004, three prisoners were mistakenly released from the GEO-run jail. One case involved prisoner Markish Thomas, a 6-foot, 4-inch tall black male weighing 250 pounds. He was released instead of another prisoner named Mark Thomas who was white, 5-foot, 10-inches tall, weighed 165 pounds, and had blond hair and blue eyes. In January 2006, attorney C. Scott Shields obtained a confidential settlement for former prisoner James J. Johnson, who was improperly held at GHCF for 44 days by jail employees who were "completely indifferent" to his obvious case of mistaken identity. See: Johnson v. GEO Group, Inc., USDC ED PA, Case No. 2:05-cv-02862-NS.

In terms of staff misconduct, a former GEO prison supervisor, Joseph F. Henderson, was charged in December 2005 with two counts of sexual assault, bribery and official oppression; he was accused of sexually abusing a female prisoner by threatening to interfere with her parole hearing if she didn't perform oral sex on him. On August 2, 2007, GHCF guard Samuel Willis, 32, while off-duty, was arrested for attempting to lure two underage girls into his car. And in Sept. 2007, a nurse at GHCF was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation into her relationship with two prisoners at the facility, after it was learned she had placed calls to cell phones found in the prisoners' cells.

Despite the above issues, in May 2006 Delaware County approved a contract that allows GEO to continue managing GHCF through the end of 2007, with a 10 percent increase in monthly operating fees and an additional 4 percent increase in June 2007, to $3.14 million per month. That fee assumes a full jail population of 1,883 prisoners.

Beaver County attempted to privatize its local jail under a contract with CiviGenics, but the deal was scuttled following an October 2006 court ruling that held the county must abide by an arbitration decision which prohibited outsourcing the facility. The county paid $125,000 to CiviGenics in cancellation fees and spent almost $800,000 in legal costs in its bid to privatize the jail.

On the state level, some Pennsylvania lawmakers are trying to prohibit future prison privatization. A bill introduced by Rep. Neal Goodman, H.B. 1469, which would bar private companies from operating state or county prisons, was the subject of a joint legislative committee hearing on Oct. 25, 2007. PLN associate editor Alex Friedmann attended the hearing and provided testimony about the private prison industry. He noted that "Public prisons, run by public officials, are accountable to the public". Private prisons are accountable to shareholders; they have a fiduciary duty to make money. That's the reason they exist – not to protect the public or to safeguard society or for the public good, but for private profit."

Opposition to the bill is expected from at least one state lawmaker: Rep. John M. Perzel, a former House Speaker who is a paid member of GEO Group's board of directors.

The Wrong Focus

One striking difference between GHCF and Pennsylvania's publicly-run county jails is that GHCF is not inspected by the state. Such inspections are not required for facilities that are accredited by the ACA; thus, by paying ACA's $10,000 accreditation fee, a jail can avoid the annual state inspection.

Regardless, there are no teeth in Pennsylvania's oversight of its county jail system, as there are no provisions to sanction the counties for deficient or even life-threatening conditions. Indeed, the state doesn't require much. "It's the basic, it's the minimum standards," admits state inspector Tom Schlager. "There aren't some lofty goals."

When a health inspector visited the Northampton County Prison, for example, he found food stored in a bathroom, no hot water or soap for kitchen workers to wash their hands, and refrigerator temperatures that were too high to safely store food.

Still, meeting state standards is not impossible. In March 2007, the Lackawanna County Prison received a 100 percent rating after an "intensive" three-day inspection. Yet the county's motivation was not so much about providing prisoners with a safe environment as it was about fiscal realities.

Shortly after four jail officials and three guards were indicted in 2004, the federal government removed the prisoners it housed at the Lackawanna County facility. Once conditions had improved, as evidenced by the favorable state inspection, the feds returned the prisoners – thereby generating $5.6 million a year for the county, which covers 33 percent of the jail's operating expenses.

Other counties fight against the state jail standards. Complaints about the cost of meeting those standards, however, indicate a lack of understanding about short-term payments for long-term benefits. "My interpretation of this trepidation is that it will remain an accepted practice to write the settlement checks which result from the many successful lawsuits filed against county correctional operations," stated Pike County Correctional Facility Warden Craig Lowe.

Philadelphia Prisons Commissioner Leon King believes the focus on building and expanding more jails and prisons, whether or not they meet state standards, ignores the real issue.

"Just as police can't arrest their way out of a crime problem, the prison can't build its way out of the population problem," King testified at a hearing held by Philadelphia's County Committee on Public Health and Human Services. "It should be stated upfront that building an additional facility or facilities would not only reduce resources from what independent research shows are other, more promising crime prevention efforts, it would also distract our attention and energy from other, more effective crime reducing measures in Philadelphia.

"We should not look to the prison – the last stop in the criminal justice system – for solutions, or even the police for that matter; we should look for solutions in the community, the city's social and physical infrastructure, in the schools, in the economic and labor institutions, in sentencing reform, all the while offering families the support they need to remain stable and happy environments where criminal activity is never tolerated and criminal values are never introduced."

King's viewpoint is largely unpopular in our nation's punitive criminal justice system, especially among the private companies that profit from that system. But until King's common-sense observations are embraced, the prisoners housed in Pennsylvania's prisons and jails – and the taxpaying public that foots the bill for the state's overburdened corrections system – will continue to suffer.

NOTE: Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell and key lawmakers are presently advocating sentencing reform legislation (HB 4) that would shift thousands of prisoners from county facilities to reduce overcrowding; however, such efforts, which will not take effect for at least three more years, may be too little too late.

Sources: The Times-Tribune, The Morning Call, Associated Press, Philadelphia Inquirer; Delco Times, Philly News,, Intelligencer Journal, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Scranton Times,, The Express Times, The Daily Item, Times Leader, The Tribune Review, Altoona Mirror, Lancaster New Era, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, Pottstown Mercury, Pocono Record, Beaver County Times, Allegheny Times,, Sharon Herald, The York Dispatch, Patriot News,,

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