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Pennsylvania: Allegheny County Jail Settles Sexual Assault Claim for $32,000

A settlement of $32,000 was reached with the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) in Pittsburgh, in a federal lawsuit filed by a former prisoner who was sexually assaulted by guard Joshua Reber. The suit, brought against the county and 16 jail officials by Melissa Behanna, raised a failure to protect claim.

In February 2015, Behanna was transferred to ACJ after receiving two consecutive one-year sentences in Washington County for possession of drug paraphernalia. Two months later she encountered Joshua Reber, a guard at the jail. Reber already had a reputation for sexually harassing female prisoners in the pod where he worked; he was known by staff and prisoners as the “pod father,” and certain prisoners were his “girlfriends.”

Reber’s M.O. was to find prisoners recently recovering from drug addiction or in active addiction, and make them pod workers where they were afforded benefits and he had better access to them. He would then move his victim to a cell not monitored by ACJ’s video surveillance system. Reber would harass and threaten them until they agreed to perform sexual acts; he was even known to keep souvenirs from his victims in his locker.

Whenever grievances were filed against Reber or he was reported to other guards, the complaints would be ignored or thrown away, and the prisoners intimidated to drop the issue. This evidenced a systematic failure at the jail and deliberate indifference by staff.

One prisoner, Lisa Gardone, told investigators that she and Reber carried on an affair at the ACJ. They started by passing notes and had some sexual contact. Once released, Reber assisted her with the transition and even set up an email account for her. Although married, he used the account to arrange sexual encounters with Gardone.

Reber met Behanna on February 24, 2015 when she was housed in his pod. Following his usual practice, he harassed Behanna, had her moved to a single cell and then forced her on more than one occasion to engage in oral sex. He threatened and intimidated her to keep quiet. This non-consensual relationship continued every day he worked until Behanna was transferred to the Washington County jail in July 2015.

Complaints against Reber continued, going so far as to state he was calling the ACJ to check on his “girlfriend” (Behanna) while he was on military leave. Due to those complaints, he was finally investigated and charged with two counts of institutional sexual assault. He later pleaded guilty to two lesser charges of official oppression and was sentenced to six to 20 months in prison. [See: PLN, June 2017, p.63; March 2016, p.63].

Alleghany County settled Behanna’s complaint for $32,000 in December 2017, while her claims against Reber settled under confidential terms in July 2018. She was represented by attorneys Jonathan M. Gesk and Steven M. Barth; lawsuits filed by other prisoners who were sexually abused by Reber at the ACJ remain pending. See: Behanna v. Allegheny County, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Penn.), Case No. 2:17-cv-00105-CB-LPL. 

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Related legal case

Behanna v. Allegheny County