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Pennsylvania Guards Charged with Physical, Sexual Abuse of Prisoners

A Pennsylvania state prison guard was arrested on September 27, 2011 and charged with 89 counts of physically and sexually abusing prisoners at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Pittsburgh. Seven other guards were initially suspended, and three face related charges.

Before his arrest, Harry F. Nicoletti, Jr., 60, had worked at SCI for 10 years. The charges against him, stemming from his conduct in F Block, the prison’s intake unit, include institutional sexual assault, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and official oppression.

A federal lawsuit filed five days before the Allegheny County Grand Jury indicted Nicoletti shed some light on the facts of the case. The suit claims that eight prison officials and the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PDOC) had a “common plan and conspiracy to sexually abuse, physically abuse, and mentally abuse inmates who were homosexual,” as well as those who were transgender or convicted of sex crimes. The abuse allegedly included the rape of a transsexual prisoner.

The unidentified plaintiff who filed the lawsuit claimed that Nicoletti had victimized him by threatening to anally rape him, make him perform oral sex or touch his genitals, or he would be subjected to physical abuse and false misconduct reports. [See: PLN, April 2012, p.1].

Nicolleti, who was released on $75,000 bail, denied the allegations in the suit and the 89 criminal charges. “There is no truth to this whatsoever,” he said. “It makes me sick to my stomach that someone can make accusations like that. It’s totally false, and there’s eight [guards] out on the street with no pay, no benefits.”

The lawyer who filed the lawsuit believes the abuse at SCI Pittsburgh was known by other prison staff. “Everybody knew what was going on,” said attorney Steven M. Barth.
At least one expert agreed there are no secrets in prison. “You can’t tell me every guard, inmate and secretary [didn’t] know what was going on,” stated Tracy Barnhart, who worked as a prison guard in Ohio for 12 years. “Officers are just as much big blabbers.”

Martin Horn, former secretary of the PDOC and now a criminology professor in New York, said a sense of brother-hood among guards – also known as a code of silence – can create an “us against them” attitude. “They have to watch each other’s backs,” he said.
“There’s a sense of loyalty, and sometimes it blinds people to their ethical obligations.”

The abuse at SCI Pittsburgh sends a negative message to prisoners, Barth noted. “The reason these guys are in prison is because they broke rules,” he said. “Now, [prisoners are] in an environment where rules don’t count. There’s a slippery slope to becoming exactly what you’re incarcerating.”

In May 2011, Pennsylvania prison officials removed SCI Pittsburgh superintendent Melvin S. Lockett and top deputies Janis Niemiec and Martin A. Kovacs, and ordered a full review of the facility. “They did not have any indications of any incidents happening anywhere else,” said PDOC spokeswoman Susan Bensinger. “It was not a rampant thing.
‘Isolated’ is a good term. It was not systemic. It was not widespread at [SCI] Pittsburgh.”

Nonetheless, several other guards were charged with participating in the physical and sexual abuse or knowing about but not reporting it, including Tory D. Kelly, 40, who faces 19 counts that include assault and witness intimidation; Jerome J. Lynch, 36, who faces 7 counts; and Bruce S. Lowther, 34, who faces 2 counts. Three other guards, Kevin Friess, Brian Olinger and Sean Storey, were initially charged but later cleared of wrongdoing. Former SCI Pittsburgh Sgt. John Michaels was suspended and then fired in connection with the investigation, but not criminally charged.

State lawmakers have also weighed in – but on the side of the prison guards accused of misconduct, not the prisoners they are accused of abusing. A bill introduced in July 2012, known as the Corrections Officers’ Bill of Rights, would require higher standards for internal prison investigations, give guards 24-hour notice before an internal affairs interview except in cases of an emergency, prohibit guards from being required to take polygraph tests, let accused PDOC employees retain their medical benefits during pending investigations, and allow guards to sue people who file frivolous complaints against them, including prisoners and the PDOC.

“There is an obvious need for such legislation based on what recently happened to a group of corrections officers employed at SCI Pittsburgh,” said state Rep. Mike Fleck, who introduced the legislation. “The eight officers were suspended without pay and benefits for almost a year following allegations of abuse made by prisoners. They were not given the opportunity to ask questions regarding the allegations or to defend themselves and were never even given the benefit of a hearing. An arbitrator later ordered that they be reinstated to their positions with full back pay and benefits.”

The bill, HB 2549, failed to pass during the 2012 legislative session but Fleck said it would be reintroduced next year. It has 24 co-sponsors.

Meanwhile, the lawsuit against Nicoletti and other prison staff remains pending, though on September 28, 2012 a federal magistrate judge dismissed claims against the PDOC, finding the state was immune for any acts the guards committed as part of their official duties. See: Doe v. Nicoletti, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Penn.), Case No. 2:11-cv-01221-LPL. Five other federal lawsuits have been filed over abuse committed by Nicoletti and other staff at SCI Pittsburgh.

Lockett, Niemiec and Kovacs have also filed suit against the state, claiming the manner in which they were fired “left a defamatory impression of serious mismanagement, as well as participation and/or acquiescence in alleged sexual abuse misconduct,” which made them “unable to secure employment in their fields, despite having actively sought employment opportunities.” Their suit was dismissed in July 2012 and is currently on appeal. See: Lockett v. Penn. Dept. of Corrections, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Penn.), Case No. 2:11-cv-01314-JFC.

Sources: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,,,

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Related legal cases

Doe v. Nicoletti

Lockett v. Penn. Dept. of Corrections