Officials say Lackawanna County Prison is improving


Officials say Lackawanna County Prison is improving
By Borys Krawczeniuk The Times-Tribune, Scranton, Pa. (MCT) Jan. 26-- 

A female inmate gives birth in a cell, despite hours of pleading that she's in labor.

A prison guard beats inmates.

A female staffer has sex with a male inmate.

Top prison officials use inmates to fix their cars, assemble their children's Christmas presents and renovate their homes and businesses.

An accused murderer, left improperly supervised, beats a fellow inmate nearly to death.

A male prison guard is charged with forcing himself on five female inmates over a decade, allegations that include the rape of one.

All this happened over the last dozen years at the Lackawanna County Prison, which has piled up a rap sheet that matches that of some of its guests.

Despite the historic record, the prison's overseers say the discovery of the latest incident - the male prison guard engaging in sex and rape of inmates - signals progress.

It shows, prison board member and Lackawanna County Commissioner Corey O'Brien said, that prison officials deal directly with a problem instead of hiding it.

"There's a significant amount of disclosures about this prison that don't come out of all prison systems," he said. "Having said that, I think that the prison continually learns from areas of weakness. The one thing I would say about this is you don't see a lot of the same issues repeating itself. Changes are made. When issues arise, when the baby was born in the prison, they revamped the protocol with respect to those type of situations."

In the case of prison guard Joseph Black, 49, who was charged last week with sexually assaulting the five inmates between 2002 and 2011 and fired Friday, the discovery of the assaults led to his suspension only a few months after Warden Robert McMillan arrived to run the jail in June 2011.

Since his arrival, the warden has instituted a special phone for inmates to secretly report suspicions of sexual abuse. The system makes it look like the inmate is calling outside the prison, but the call goes directly to an investigator in the prison security office.

Though officials say the prison is addressing its problems, two federal lawsuits say different. The suits, by two of Mr. Black's victims, say prison officials did little or nothing to stop him. One suit says the prison was customarily "deliberately indifferent" when it came to inmate complaints.

Beating settlement

The prison's rap sheet already includes the payment of $975,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by the family of former inmate Nicholas Pinto, who was left with a serious brain injury after a beating by accused murderer Michael Simonson.

The Lackwanna County Prison of 2014 is not the prison of 2003 when the beatings and use of inmates for private work came to light and led to the arrests of several top prison officials and guards, said county District Attorney Andy Jarbola, a prison board member.

A grand jury presentment said fellow prison guards knew what Mr. Black was doing, but didn't want to "snitch" on their union brother. The victims feared retribution if they reported what they knew.

Some guards only cooperated once they had to testify before the grand jury, Mr. Jarbola said, but he said he recently spoke with a prison guard who told him the days of covering up misbehavior are over.

"He's been there for a while. He said even with regards to the employees the culture has really changed. This guy did what he did and so be it, he should go to jail for a long time," Mr. Jarbola said. "He said, 'That culture is gone' â?¦ This guard that I spoke to this morning believes that if this incident is going on now, certainly someone would come forward in some fashion."

Efforts to reach William Shanley, the president of the guards' union, were unsuccessful.

10 years of change

Over the past decade, Mr. Jarbola said, the prison has professionalized, relying now on civil service testing instituted under Mr. O'Brien and Commissioner Mike Washo in hiring new guards.

"The political favoritism is gone," he said. "They're hiring the most qualified people at this point. Not to say they didn't hire qualified people in the past but, as we know from the previous incidents at the jail, as to who was involved and things of that nature, the jail, years ago, it was a political dumping ground for jobs. Somebody who was politically connected, wanted to get a family member a job or themselves a job, they got hired out at the jail."

Mr. Jarbola said having two successive professional prison wardens with roots in the state prison system - first Vincent Mooney and now Mr. McMillan - is making a "big difference" and "rooting out these bad apples."

Mr. O'Brien credited Mr. McMillan with bringing real change to the prison, translating the higher standards of the state prison system to the county setting.

"I am confident, I think Warden McMillan has done good work, he's been effective. He's made a large number of changes with respect to policies and procedures he brought from the state system," Mr. O'Brien said. "We took one of their prize possessions."

Of the way Mr. McMillan handled the allegations against Mr. Black, Mr. O'Brien said, "He rooted it out and made the appropriate corrections at the appropriate time."

County Judge Vito P. Geroulo, the court's representative on the prison board, cautioned against overoptimistic assessments. He pointed out that a prison that once housed 80 people now regularly houses 900.

"The ability to predict and deal with every possible situation that might arise is really a formidable task," he said. "And I think there's always room for tuning up the procedures, for enforcing the rules that are designed to maintain safety, but it's almost like our government dealing with the terrorist situation. The more advanced and sophisticated we become, it seems the problems can be almost like viruses that adapt to antibiotics that we're coming up with."

Not symptomatic

Still, the judge said, the latest problem is not "symptomatic of a larger management problem."

"I don't think the problems that we're encountering are because of misfeasance, malfeasance or incompetence of anyone," Judge Geroulo said. "I think the wardens have all attempted their best effort ... There's not going to be any perfect procedure as long as you're dealing with human beings and not robots and automatic machines that are going to react the same in each and every situation."

Mr. McMillan said he's done his best to update the prison's policies and procedures, including compliance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, which meant training guards about detecting sexual assaults. The prison's last two state inspections produced perfect scores, he said.

"I believe the place is turning around. I believe the officers are doing the right thing," he said. "I believe they care about the facility and they care about what they're doing. And at the same time, every now and then, you do get one you have a problem with."

Mr. McMillan said he doesn't know how Mr. Black was able to avoid detection for so long, but said "we heard some rumors and heard some complaints and we launched an investigation."

"We found out there was evidence to it and it was instantly turned over to the DA's office," he said. "We investigate everything now, that's the big difference. We look at every complaint no matter how big or how small and we look into it.

He said the prison is only "as good as its weakest link."

"You'll always have people that care about the facility and want to come forward. I found since I've been here there is a large number of good staff. They want the prison run right. They want to keep it out of the newspaper. They want things to go right," Mr. McMillan said. "You're always going to have that very small element that no matter what are unhappy ... No matter where you're at in society, you'll always have a bad apple or two."

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