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Pennsylvania Jail Rebuffs Calls for Independent Review of Abuse Claims

Pennsylvania Jail Rebuffs Calls for Independent Review of Abuse Claims

by David M. Reutter

Jails and prisons are often located in areas hidden from public view, and as a result often become extremely insular. Those who work within such insular cultures resist efforts to have their “dirty laundry” exposed. Thus, when officials at Pennsylvania’s Washington County Correctional Facility resisted a call for an independent review into the jail’s policies and procedures, their resistance was only natural. That does not, however, mean it was the correct reaction.

Washington County Commissioner and prison board member Diane Irey said the 600 complaints she has received over the past 12 years demonstrate the problems that exist behind the jail’s insular nature. Hundreds of those accusations involved sexual and physical abuse of prisoners, yet internal investigations found every one of those complaints to be without merit.

“It’s amazing to me that there’s never an employee found to be at fault with those investigations,” Irey said. “I think the public trust of the way things are handled at the jail is questionable.” On April 16, 2008, Irey asked the prison board to explore how an outside review of the jail could be conducted.

While Irey’s concern may be admirable, it only came in the face of a federal investigation into former county District Attorney John C. Pettit. Over his 24 years in office, Pettit, 72, frequently used jailhouse informants in criminal cases. He has faced several lawsuits for interfering with the treatment of prisoners; those complaints prompted Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca to issue an order in 2007 requiring court approval before a prisoner can be removed from the jail.

What concerned Irey and other county officials was that several jail employees and prisoners testified before a federal grand jury in March 2008. The grand jury is investigating allegations that Pettit solicited false testimony, helped informants buy drugs, and accepted sexual favors from female prisoners in return for special privileges and leniency in their criminal cases.

When the FBI seized jail records in late 2006, county officials became afraid of what might come to light. The FBI contacted and questioned several county employees, assistant district attorneys, the jail warden and a probation officer. Federal agents also searched Pettit’s office and seized evidence in November 2007. The investigation is ongoing.

Irey said problems at the jail were more isolated than widespread. She stated that many of the abuse complaints centered around two or three guards, whom she refused to name. Prior to her recent efforts to obtain an independent investigation, she said she confronted those guards about 10 years ago. “I let them know that I didn’t believe that all these complaints were unwarranted,” she remarked.

While the complaints tapered off for a short time, they continued. One of the more recent complaints came from a prisoner who claimed that guards spit in his food, threw cold water on him, sprayed him with pepper spray and sexually assaulted him. The prisoner had to be taken to a hospital to have an item extracted from his body. A jail investigation described the incident as a “self-inflicted injury.”

“That one troubled me the most,” Irey said. Still, she did not suggest an independent review of jail operations until after the federal investigation of Pettit began. Jail officials, of course, are resisting any outside investigation as being unnecessary, arguing the facility is a “flagship operation” that has received perfect inspection reviews from state officials since 2002. The county prison board deferred action until the federal investigation of Pettit is concluded.

Westmoreland County Prison Deputy of Security Steven J. Cmar said the hardest part of investigating fellow employees is having the patience and persistence to get to the truth of the matter. “You have to want to do it,” he said. Those who operate in insular, secretive correctional facilities, however, usually believe that their dirty laundry is best left unwashed and hidden from the public.

Sources: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

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