Lawmaker introduces plan to combat inmate assaults in Pa. prisons

Over the past six months, four COs have been attacked – one of them killed – by SCI-Somerset inmates


By David Hurst
The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa.

SOMERSET, Pa. — Over the past six months, four corrections officers have been attacked – one of them killed – by SCI-Somerset inmates.

State Rep. Carl Walker Metzgar, R-Berlin, is unveiling a series of bills aimed at putting an end to the trend.

As part of a series of seven prison reform bills, the Somerset County lawmaker’s plan would eliminate the possibility of parole for inmates convicted of staff assault, impose a mandatory five-year sentence for those convicted of that crime and lower the threshold for what is considered an assault on staff.

The plan would also ban inmate access to state-issued boots – in the wake of a fatal assault on Sgt. Mark Baserman by an inmate wearing work boots – and require a deputy secretary’s approval before anyone accused of assaulting a corrections officer can buy any other items on the commissary.

“It is clear that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ policies have failed to protect the staff and officers that protect us from the state’s most dangerous criminals,” Metzgar said. “It is time to stop coddling these criminals, who are now prisoners ... ”

Metzgar said he drafted the legislation after a series of meetings with concerned corrections officers.

They fear the 2,352-population prison is “a powder keg” ready to ignite – but Walker said there should be a concern statewide.

He recalled an incident in recent years when an SCI-Somerset inmate slid through a commissary chute to attack a staff member. The state responded by adding a metal bar in the middle of the chute to prevent it from happening again but didn’t repeat the process at the other state lockups, Metzgar said.

Before long, the incident occurred at another state prison.

“We shouldn’t, as lawmakers, have to micro-manage the prison system.

“But something has to be done to protect the people inside – and give these officers the tools to take back these jails,” he said.

“If someone assaults a corrections officer, they shouldn’t be able to have a candy bar afterward,” he said. “This isn’t Club Med.”

Another bill that Metzgar drafted would mandate that two corrections officers be staffed with semi-automatic rifles per tower. As is, officers carry shotguns, the Somerset County Republican said.

Metzgar’s proposal is being circulated in the state capital to collect co-sponsorship signatures.

The prison reform package will likely be introduced later this summer, he said.

Proposals

  • Redefine crime code language to lower threshold defining “assault” by inmate on prison staff.
  • Impose a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for inmates convicted of corrections staff assaults. That sentenced would be served consecutive to the sentence they are already serving.
  • Eliminate early parole eligibility for inmates convicted of staff assaults.
  • Place inmates on “restricted release” list, requiring them to stay in restricted housing units following an assault until a regional DOC deputy secretary approves their release to general population.
  • Prohibit inmate access to boots, one of many items eligible for commissary purchase to qualified state prisoners.
  • Mandate two guards per watch tower be equipped with semi-automatic rifles with 500-round magazines.
  • Restrict commissary eligibility after a staff assault without a regional deputy secretary’s approval.

©2018 The Tribune-Democrat (Johnstown, Pa.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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