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Federal Prison Employees Convicted of Stealing Prisoners’ Meds

On January 6, 2009, three former employees at the Buffalo Federal Detention Center in Batavia, New York pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of theft of government property.

Richard Lawson, a captain and pharmacist; Lisa Schwab, a pharmacist technician; and Leonard Iannello, a contract guard at the facility, admitted they had stolen medicine intended for prisoners.

The three former staff members came under investigation in May 2007 after prisoners complained of difficulty in obtaining their medications. Drugs taken from the prison included Fiorcet, a prescription painkiller; Ibuprofin; Cephalexin, an antibiotic; Sudafed, and various other psychotropic and pain medications.

Court documents indicated that federal prosecutors were also investigating a captain who served as the facility’s health service director, a lieutenant and two “jail commanders” for receiving stolen drugs. The lieutenant, who was not charged, reportedly received Fiorcet pills “almost daily for two to three years.” Federal officials refused to disclose whether the other implicated employees had been reassigned or reprimanded, citing a pending investigation.

Because the drugs involved were only prescription medicines and not controlled substances, Lawson, Schwab and Iannello were charged with misdemeanor offenses. “If they were controlled substances or narcotics, we would have looked at more serious charges,” said federal prosecutor James P. Kennedy.

Captain Lawson told one witness that he took some inhalers home with him so he could burn them in a trash fire, and admitted to stealing vitamins and syringes to treat his dog for rat poisoning. Lawson also claimed his dog had chewed up some of the stolen “psychotropic and pain” meds that he left in a box in his garage, apparently relying on the age-old “dog ate the evidence” excuse.

Norman P. Effman, vice president of the State Defenders Association, said depriving prisoners of medication was nothing new.

“With the budgetary problems that jails and prisons have, it’s often very difficult for prisoners to get the meds they need,” said Effman. “Often, the jails give them less costly meds than the ones they really need.” The problem is exacerbated when staff members outright steal prisoners’ medicine.

Despite the serious breach of trust by the three former prison employees, they received lenient punishments. Lawson and Schwab were sentenced on March 3, 2009; Lawson received two years probation and a $2,000 fine, while Schwab was ordered to pay a $250 fine. Iannello was sentenced on May 15, 2009 and only assessed a $25 fine.

The Buffalo Federal Detention Center is operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is under the authority of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. About 130 staff members at the facility are ICE employees while an-other 200 are contract workers.


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