by Kevin Bliss
Employees at the Lackawanna County Prison (LCP) in Scranton, Pennsylvania have been under a year-long investigation into the sexual abuse of women prisoners at the facility. The culture of abuse, said to have continued for over a decade, is so pervasive that those accused include the highest-ranking prison officials. [See: PLN, July 2018, p.34].
Scranton attorney Matthew Comerford filed suit in March 2018 on behalf of former prisoner Shannon Marie Parchinski, who alleged sexual abuse by several guards.
The defendants named in the suit include former LCP wardens Vincent Mooney and Robert McMillen, former director of work release Thomas Staff and his son, Jeffrey T. Staff. Two other guards in the lawsuit, Sergeants Isaac Hebron and Kate Fanning, were aware of the abuse but threatened to retaliate against Parchinski if she reported it, she claimed.
The younger Staff is one of seven former LCP guards who were arrested after a grand jury investigation initiated by State Attorney General Josh Shapiro. On February 14, 2018, institutional sexual assault charges were filed against Staff, who allegedly took Parchinski to his mother’s home for sex on two occasions while she was on work release and supervised release. See: Parchinski v. Lackawanna County, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Penn.), Case No. 3:18-cv-00700-RDM-KM.
Jeffrey Staff is represented by attorney Corey Kolcharno, who questioned Parchinski’s credibility, adding that his suspicions that she was motivated by financial gain were reaffirmed by her lawsuit seeking monetary damages. But Parchinski’s suit states that female prisoners had feared to come forward with similar claims because their complaints were ignored or they faced retaliation. Moreover, LCP guards had been warned about the investigation.
“In the few instances that these allegations were reported to personnel at the Lackawanna County Prison, there is no evidence that any action was taken to help the female inmates who were being sexually assaulted by correctional officers,” Shapiro said in a statement. “This is outrageous conduct by those placed in positions of power.”
The other LCP guards who were criminally charged include George R. Efthimiou, Mark A. Johnson, George T. McHale, Paul J. Voglino, James J. Walsh and John J. Shnipes. They face charges of institutional sexual assault, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, aggravated indecent assault and harassment.
A former Archibald city councilman, Shnipes faces the most criminal charges, which stem from allegations of sexual abuse made by four former female prisoners dating back to 2006. All of the women claimed Shnipes rewarded them with contraband or preferential treatment in exchange for sexual acts. They also said other guards were directly involved in helping Shnipes avoid detection.
In addition to his criminal charges, Shnipes is named in the lawsuit filed by Comerford, along with Joseph Black, as guards who sexually abused Parchinski while she was held at LCP. Black has not been charged. Like Staff’s attorney, the lawyer representing Shnipes, Robert Trichilo, claimed that Parchinski was “just looking to make money.”
Parchinski alleged that Shnipes repeatedly asked her to reveal her breasts, and put his hands on her buttocks. She also said she had seen Black and her cellmate engage in sex on multiple occasions, and that he once had her manually stimulate him, afterwards giving her cigarettes, coffee and candy.
Lackawanna County spokesman Joseph D’Arienzo said many of the allegations stem from incidents that occurred years ago, and the facility is now safe for female prisoners.
In June 2018, the county settled Parchinski’s lawsuit for $60,000. It had previously settled an unrelated complaint over sexual abuse by LCP guards for $750,000; that case was brought by former prisoner April Pleasants. See: Pleasants v. Lackawanna County, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Penn.), Case No. 3:13-cv-01611-SES.
Another suit filed by Comerford in July 2016, on behalf of four LCP prisoners who alleged sexual abuse by staff members, remains pending. See: Fox v. Lackawanna County, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Penn.), Case No. 3:16-cv-01511-ARC.
The lead plaintiff in that case, Tammy A. Fox, a mother of five, died in a car accident in August 2018. The brake lines in her vehicle had been cut, reportedly by her boyfriend, John W. Jenkins, who claimed he was trying to make an improvised crack pipe. Fox was a “key witness” for the grand jury that returned indictments against the seven LCP guards.
“The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has no intention of withdrawing criminal charges in cases involving Tammy Fox as a victim,” the Attorney General’s office said.
“This was not one rogue prison guard,” Shapiro noted during a news conference. “They took advantage of [prisoners] for their own sick gratification. Then they threatened to make these inmates’ lives worse if they told anyone about the abuse.”
His office has set up a hotline for victims or other persons who were aware of the sexual abuse at LCP but did not report it. They are encouraged to come forward to assist with the ongoing investigation. The hotline number is 570-846-4074.
Sources: www.usnews.com, www.citizensvoice.com, www.thetimes-tribune.com, www.wnep.com, www.lehighvalleylive.com
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Related legal cases
Parchinski v. Lackawanna County
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (M.D. Penn.), Case No. 3:18-cv-00700-RDM-KM|
Pleasants v. Lackawanna County
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (M.D. Penn.), Case No. 3:13-cv-01611-SES|
Fox v. Lackawanna County
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (M.D. Penn.), Case No. 3:16-cv-01511-ARC|