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Pennsylvania Jail Major Pleads Guilty to Beating Prisoner After Escape Attempt

On October 29, 2011, James M. Donis, 50, who had been major of the guards and the fourth-highest-ranking official at the Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was fired from his $68,631-a-year position. He had worked at the jail since 1989.

A federal lawsuit filed on October 7, 2011 accused Donis of beating a prisoner, Gary W. Barbour, who had allegedly attempted to escape through the jail’s ventilation system in April 2010. He was caught and offered no resistance. Nonetheless, Donis allegedly put on leather gloves and repeatedly punched Barbour in the face after telling him, “I’m your worst nightmare.” Other guards allegedly participated in the assault.

According to the suit, after the beating Barbour’s bloody and soiled clothes were changed before he was taken to a hospital. He was also denied follow-up medical care by jail staff, was not taken to a surgical appointment for repair of a deviated septum and was placed in a psychological observation cell for more than a month.

Attorney Ronald D. Barber, who represents Barbour in the lawsuit, said it was “too early to tell” what effect the firing would have on the litigation. Allegheny County spokeswoman Judi McNeil refused to comment on Donis’ termination “because it’s a personnel matter.”

Human Rights Coalition Fed Up advocate Shandre Delaney said the firing “doesn’t surprise me, because most of the time when these things are occurring, it goes all the way up the ladder.” She has protested local jail conditions and noted, “[t]here is abuse going on.”

Donis was charged in federal court with various offenses on November 2, 2011, including violating Barbour’s civil rights by assaulting him and making false statements to the FBI. He was released on $50,000 unsecured bond.

On October 5, 2012, the U.S. District Court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss Barbour’s lawsuit, finding that he had presented sufficient evidence of violation of his rights for the case to proceed. See: Barbour v. Allegheny County, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Penn.), Case No. 2:11-cv-01291-LPL.

Ten days later, Donis pleaded guilty to federal charges of falsifying reports by creating an addendum to his original report that falsely claimed Barbour had “refused to comply with commands” and was “combative” when he was caught during the escape attempt.
Charges of deprivation of civil rights and making false statements to the FBI were dropped as part of a plea bargain; Donis is scheduled to be sentenced on February 20, 2013. See: United States v. Donis, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Penn.), Case No. 2:11-cr-00251.

Sources: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

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Related legal cases

Barbour v. Allegheny County

United States v. Donis