Brutal assault on CO raises officer safety concerns in Pa. facility
One CO experienced the literally painful result of working at what he and others call an inadequate facility
By Andrew Scott
Pocono Record, Stroudsburg, Pa.
SNYDERSVILLE, Pa. — While some in the public disagree on whether Monroe County Correctional Facility is overcrowded, one corrections officer has personally experienced the literally painful result of working at what he and others call an inadequate jail.
Out on medical leave after being brutally assaulted by an inmate, corrections officer Vincent Cardenas plans to voice his concerns at Tuesday's Monroe County Prison Board meeting.
"This isn't about me," Cardenas said during a Friday news interview at his Palmerton home. "This is about what can happen to any corrections officer trying to do his or her job when facing violent inmates, some of whom are mentally unstable or feel they have nothing left to lose, in an overcrowded facility with inadequate mental health care access for the inmates."
A Los Angeles native, former construction equipment customer service manager and married stepfather of three, Cardenas began working at Monroe County Correctional Facility in 2001, two years after moving with his wife from Pennsylvania to New Jersey.
In May, Cardenas and fellow CO Mark Maminski were working the 7 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. shift. Cardenas and Maminski were on a monthly rotation schedule to staff the jail's restrictive housing unit (RHU) for inmates found guilty of more serious jail infractions such as assaulting COs or other inmates.
Each RHU cell once held one inmate. However, due to inmate population growth and shrinking space to house inmates, each RHU cell now holds two inmates.
In another part of the jail is an "overflow" unit with three cells to house inmates for whom there's no room elsewhere, Cardenas said. Previously, no COs were required to staff the overflow unit, unless an inmate there had been placed on suicide watch, but jail policy has now changed to mandate a CO's presence.
"But, there's no money in the county budget to pay a CO for the hours to staff the overflow unit, so those cells are sitting empty," Cardenas said.
RHU inmates are allowed one hour per day out of their cells to shower, shave and/or exercise in a caged outdoor yard area. That is at a different time each day.
On May 30, inmates Francesco Reid, who's charged in a recent East Stroudsburg University stabbing, and Jose Maldonado, who's serving time for attempted murder in one case and aggravated assault in another, were sharing an RHU cell. Their hour out was scheduled for 1 to 2 p.m. that day.
Maldonado was in RHU for a previous assault on another CO, Cardenas said.
When it came time to let Maldonado and Reid out for their one hour, Cardenas and Maminski followed routine protocol.
One inmate places both hands through a small rectangular slot in the door to be handcuffed by the first CO, who then opens the door and shackles that inmate's feet, while the second CO stands nearby to keep an eye on the second inmate. The door is then closed again so that the second CO can handcuff and foot-shackle the second inmate in the same manner.
Cardenas escorted Reid to the yard while Maminski escorted Maldonado to the shower area visible from the day-room common area. After showering, Maldonado was escorted by Maminski back to the cell, after which Maminski then returned to the day room.
Cardenas then escorted Reid back to rejoin Maldonado in the cell. Cardenas removed Reid's shackles and unlocked the cell door, meaning to place Reid back in the cell and close the door again so that Reid could place his hands through the slot to have the cuffs removed.
Cardenas started pulling the door open. He stood facing the door, with the still-handcuffed Reid standing to his left.
That's when Maldonado pushed his way through the door from the inside and attacked Cardenas.
"He jumped on me, started punching me in the face and knocked me to the ground," said the 54-year-old Cardenas, outweighed by the bigger, stronger, 19-year-old Maldonado. "I landed on and injured my left shoulder. He got down on top of me and kept punching me in the face. I couldn't get him off.
"I don't remember how long this went on," Cardenas said. "Maybe about 30 seconds, but it seemed like forever. I remember hoping someone came to get him off me soon."
Maminski saw the attack from the day room and immediately radioed for help. He then rushed to try pulling Maldonado off of Cardenaus, moments before other COs arrived.
"There was blood all over," Cardenas said. "My nose was broken in six or seven places and had to be reset. The doctors later told me I had an orbital fracture in one eye socket. My vision was impaired. I still can't drive because my shoulder's messed up, so my wife has to drive."
A fellow CO drove Cardenas to St. Luke's Hospital in Bartonsville after the attack.
"Vincent called me and said he wouldn't have to work the overtime shift he'd been scheduled to work that day," wife Diane Cardenas said. "I said, 'Oh, that's good.' Then, he said, 'But, I'll be home late.' I asked him why and he told me he was on his way to the hospital because he'd been assaulted by an inmate.
"I told him, 'Well, at least you're in good enough a condition to call me, so that's a good sign,'" she said.
She later joined him at the hospital and photographed his injuries.
Safety at risk?
Since then, Vincent Cardenas has been on leave, awaiting medical clearance to return to work, while Maldonado has been transferred to another county.
"The support I've received from fellow COs has been tremendous," he said.
Cardenas has to use his own benefits since, by law, worker's compensation doesn't kick in until 14 days after an assault, which in this case is the week of June 11.
"They should never have double-bunked the RHU cells," he said. "No CO should ever be put in a situation where they're attacked by an unrestrained RHU inmate."
The jail currently employs 120 COs and has more than 400 inmates, according to the most recent count Cardenas said he heard.
If these numbers are accurate, that's 120 COs divided into three shifts. Though the number of COs working each shift is unknown, if 120 COs were to average out to 40 COs per shift, then that would mean a ratio of at least 10 inmates to each CO.
"The jail was state-of-the-art when it was built 30 years ago, but it's outdated now," Cardenas said. "They have the space to expand, but no one wants taxes raised. Meanwhile, the safety of COs is at risk."
When contacted Friday, Warden Garry Haidel declined to comment on accurate inmate-to-CO numbers, any steps being taken to improve safety or anything else.
"This case is still pending, so I'm not going to make any statement," Haidel said.
While not wanting something like this to happen to her husband, Diane Cardenas believes God allowed the attack for a reason.
"We're hoping good can come out of this in the form of much-needed positive changes in conditions at the jail," she said.
©2018 the Pocono Record, Stroudsburg, Pa.