Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Pennsylvania County Prisons Not Reporting Critical Incidents

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PDOC) requires county prisons to submit monthly “extraordinary occurrence” reports as part of the department’s duty to inspect local lock-ups and identify deficiencies. However, the accuracy of the self-reported data has been faulty in some cases and many county prisons fail to file the reports, according to a July 2011 series of news articles.

The PDOC has required “extraordinary occurrence” reports for over a decade. County prisons were required to submit the reports annually until the PDOC began demanding monthly reports in 2009. The reports quantify use-of-force incidents by guards, plus assaults, suicides, homicides, escapes, fires and other unusual events at the state’s 69 county prisons, which are equivalent to jails.

There is no penalty for failing to file the reports, as the PDOC has no jurisdiction over local prisons. “If reports are not received,” said PDOC spokeswoman Susan Bensinger, “it is listed as a deficiency for the upcoming inspection. When the county is deficient, they must provide a plan of action to remedy the deficiency.”

Two-thirds of all Pennsylvania county prisons failed to submit reports for one or more months in 2009 and 2010. In the first two months of 2011, 17 prisons did not submit reports for one or both months. The prison in Cambria County has failed to file reports since 2009, and the Beaver County Prison did not report in 2010. The Lancaster County Prison missed two reports in 2009 and one in 2010.

“What does it mean if they don’t take serious[ly] reporting requirements about crimes taking place in their facilities?” asked Grayfred Grey, a retired attorney and member of Have a Heart, a group concerned about jail operations.

The fact that county prisons lose points on PDOC inspections if they fail to file reports seems to be of little consequence to local officials. Their bigger concern is being compared to non-reporting facilities. “I don’t want to be compared unfairly to other prisons that aren’t reporting numbers,” stated Lancaster County Prison Warden Vincent Guarini.

The PDOC says the reports are necessary, even if they have no way to enforce compliance. “Our inspectors use the statistical information provided to determine if there are any trends developing,” said Bensinger. When a spike in suicides is identified, for example, the PDOC offers training resources to prevent such occurrences.

One potential trend is an increasing number of use-of-force incidents at the Lancaster County Prison. Such incidents increased from 254 in 2009 to 284 in 2010. The prison reported 109 use-of-force incidents during the first two months of 2011 alone.

“Lancaster County Prison is the ninth-largest county prison in Pennsylvania,” noted Jean Bickmire, a staff member with Justice & Mercy, a non-profit prison advocacy organization. “Yet its extraordinary occurrence reports place it much higher than we’d expect.”

Some, however, question the accuracy of the county prisons’ self-reported data for the facilities that do file reports with the PDOC. “I suspect that there may be more incidents than are self-reported,” observed Mary Steffy, director of Mental Health America of Lancaster County.

Incidents at the Lancaster County Prison are representative of such concerns. PDOC records reflect two occasions when guards used batons against prisoners while subduing them. Guarini said guards at the prison do not carry batons, and that the PDOC “entered incorrectly” the information regarding those incidents. Bensinger replied that the information about the batons was included in the prison’s own report.

Another issue raises doubts about the accuracy of self-reporting by the county prisons. From 2008 to early 2011, Lancaster County Prison did not report any assaults by guards on prisoners. Yet in 2008, prison guard Silvestre Villarreal, Jr. assaulted a prisoner shackled to a bed at a local hospital, repeatedly punching him until nurses intervened. He was later charged and convicted. [See: PLN, Nov. 2009, p.1].

Another Lancaster County prison guard also was convicted of abusing prisoners, and two other guards were fired or resigned amid allegations of abuse. Yet apparently none of those incidents were included in reports submitted to the PDOC.

Further, a number of lawsuits have been filed against the county alleging excessive force or brutality by prison staff. In one of those cases, two former Lancaster County prison guards, Cindy Heistand and Betty Jane Robinson, testified at trial in October 2010 about abuses at the facility in a lawsuit filed by prisoner Paul Barbacano. Barbacano alleged that guards had slammed his head into doors and walls, and punched him in the head and face. The federal jury deadlocked, and the case settled for $75,000 in December 2010 before a retrial was held. See: Barbacano v. Guarini, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Penn.), Case No. 5:08-cv-05098-AB.

One state lawmaker said changes were needed to ensure accurate reporting. “I’m not pleased that Lancaster County Prison is not reporting statistics every month. There’s no excuse not to report every single month. This is true for all counties. They need to report every month on time,” said state Senator Mike Brubaker. “I’m committed to changing that legislatively, if that is indeed something I can do. If we need to offer new legislation, including penalties for non-reporting, I’m prepared to do that.”


As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Barbacano v. Guarini