Pa. COs call on legislators to demand more oversight, safety measures

“The department continues to look past violent behavior in order to get as many inmates out on the street as they can"


Jan Murphy
The Patriot-News

HARRISBURG — In early January, a corrections officer at State Corrections Institution-Greene survived getting stabbed 35 times by an inmate. Since then, nearly three dozen more inmate assaults on corrections officers in state prisons have occurred including one as recent as Tuesday evening, according to the officers’ union leader.

Two years ago, Sgt. Mark Basserman was attacked and murdered at SCI-Somerset.

Larry Blackwell, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, spoke at a Capitol Rotunda news conference on Tuesday, Feb. 19. (Photo/TNS)
Larry Blackwell, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, spoke at a Capitol Rotunda news conference on Tuesday, Feb. 19. (Photo/TNS)

Larry Blackwell, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, said the officers know their job is inherently dangerous.

“But the level of violence inside our state system right now is increasing as the department continues to look past violent behavior in order to get as many inmates out on the street as they can,” Blackwell said at a Capitol Rotunda news conference on Tuesday attended by nearly 100 corrections officers. “We need to make it safer.”

Lawmakers who spoke at the news conference said corrections officers should not be in a position of fearing for their life every day they go to work.

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said the officers have not conveyed that level of concern about their safety to him but if they have that concern, he said the department has that concern.

“The reality is we’re all pulling in the same direction," he said.

The corrections officers came to the Capitol to call on the General Assembly and public to demand stronger oversight of the Department of Corrections. They also urged more accountability for bad behavior by inmates as well as cited prison overcrowding and the recently announced plan to close a state prison in Luzerne County as contributing to the problem.

They accused the Department of Corrections of manipulating numbers to show that assaults on staff are going down, which is “putting the lives of our officers, prison employees, inmates – yes, the public in danger," Blackwell said.

But the issue of corrections officers’ safety drew only scant attention during a corrections department budget hearing although Wetzel told senators he would welcome the creation of an oversight committee to assess the climate inside the prisons, as was suggested by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne County.

While corrections officials acknowledge that inmate-on-inmate assaults in the state prisons are on the rise, Tabb Bickel, executive deputy secretary for institutional operations, told PennLive that trend is in part attributable to criminal justice reforms that have led to the release of non-violent inmates.

“We’re having more aggressive inmates left in the system,” Bickel said.

As for assaults on corrections officers, he insisted the numbers have declined. Bickel said they peaked in August 2018 when the department locked down the state’s 25 facilities after dozens of staff members reported being sickened by exposure to synthetic narcotics. Department spokesman Sue McNaughton shared that the inmate-on-staff assault rate in 2019 was 20 percent lower than it was in 2015.

Still, Bickel said emphatically, "One staff assault is way too many on any staff within our system.”

The corrections officers said the department is manipulating the statistics through the way it categorizes assaults on staff. The department categorizes assaults into three types: major – requires medical attention outside of the facility; throwing – involves the throwing of liquids, feces or objects, and; general – any other type of assault.

Blackwell noted the department doesn’t consider “gassing," incidents or “throwing" as the department terms it, as major.

“Don’t tell me they aren’t major,” Blackwell said. “Talk to our people who work inside these jails and they’ll all tell you how inaccurate the reporting of these assaults are. Misconduct reports are not being processed and when inmates are punished, discipline is reduced or cut short."

Wetzel acknowledged that the corrections officers have requested a change in the way assaults on officers are reported but said the department wants to ensure consistency so statistics can be compared to past years.

As for cutting short inmate punishment when it involves an assault on staff, Bickel said that doesn’t happen.

“Any assault whether it be considered a major or any assault on any staff member, when the inmate gets his misconduct sanction, the inmate will do that time or that sentence or that sanction in its entirety," he said. "There is no time cuts for any type of assault on staff or any violence on staff.”

Bickel said he was disturbed to hear the corrections’ officers concerns that were aired since

Moreover, McNaughton, corrections department spokeswoman, said employees are provided tools and skills to reduce assaults and violence. They include giving corrections officers pepper spray to carry and making available protective vests to employees. They also train staff in assault management application, interpersonal communications, de-escalation techniques, mental health first aid, crisis intervention and more.

And Wetzel added, “we refuse to drop below minimum staffing. If you look at our staffing levels they are higher now than ever before so these are all things we do to make prisons more safe and secure.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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