“No prison is as dirty as this one”

By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Lackawanna County Commissioner Patrick M. O’Malley pins a captain’s badge on County Corrections Officer William Shanley. A civil lawsuit alleges that Shanley was part of an elaborate sexual assault scheme in Lackwanna County Prison, and that O’Malley played a role in attempting to cover it up. Photo via Lackawanna County.

Let’s talk about the raid at Lackawanna County prison.

During more than 10 hours last Thursday, investigators with the Pennsylvania State Police and the state Attorney General’s office descended upon county facilities in Scranton.

We linked to a related story last week, but it’s worth some further contextualization. Though Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office has been mumon the reason for the law enforcement attention, multiple news outlets reported that it involved a grand jury investigation into allegations of sexual abuse. The Times-Tribune even added up the tab that Lackawanna County has paid thus far to correctional officers placed on administrative leave while the investigation unfolds.

If it does involve sexual abuse allegations, there are some hints about where its focus might lay.

Have a look at this civil complaint. It’s horrifying. It alleges that numerous current and former Lackawanna County correctional officers — such as John Shnipes, who was forced to resign in 2013, and William Shanley, who now serves as a captain at the prison — used the institution as grooming ground for perverse sexual conquests with female inmates both inside the prison and while inmates were on work release. Not only does it allege that COs carried out continual sexual attacks on multiple female prisoners, but it explicitly accuses other officers and high-level officials of perpetuating an elaborate cover up.

Just as an example (and there are many in the complaint), county prison officials, for years, received troubling information about Schnipes’ sexual attacks at the prison. They even convened a grand jury in 2010 to investigate him. Between 2011 and 2013 — while he was under active investigation — the complaint says Schnipes continued sexually assaulting women at the prison, and even set up other COs to carry out similar attacks.

Schnipes was eventually forced out. But there have been allegations — some in court, as recently as this year — that whatever actions occurred following that grand jury investigation were little more than window dressing to give the appearance of aggressive oversight while a broader sexual assault conspiracy continued.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that was the case. As outlined in the civil complaint, Patrick O’Malley — a Lackawanna County Commissioner who served as a corrections officer at the county prison for 15 years — is alleged to have shared information that he learned from Prison Board meetings to a CO who had come under fire, “warning her that she was going to be investigated.” The complaint concludes that “this was part of the cover-up and conspiracy perpetrated by him and other policy makers which caused Plaintiffs to be assaulted and caused the delay in them uncovering the current cause of action.”

As the Times-Tribune’s Borys Krawczeniuk pointed out on Sunday, Lackawanna County prison has a shocking history of criminal staff behavior. Institutional sex crimes are only part of it: Employees have been accused of physical assault, graft, failing to treat sick and injured inmates, and even failing to perform simple housekeeping duties.

“No prison is as dirty as this one,” a source told Krawczeniuk.

That source was being literal — referring to employees actually failing to clean dirt and grime from the prison. But he may as well have been speaking of the culture as a whole.

Whatever the outcome of Shapiro’s probe, there are a lot of questions that need to be answered about Lackawanna County prison.

Maybe soon we’ll have answers.

IN OTHER NEWS

(Criminal justice news deserving of an in-depth look.)

Barbed wire fencing at the State Correctional Institution Phoenix. Photo via The Philadelphia Inquirer.

  • Philly.com: “How computers are predicting crime — and potentially impacting your future”

“‘The sad thing is you risk shooting yourself in the foot when you behave as if you have something to hide,’ Berk said. ‘There’s nothing to hide.’ Probation and Parole’s unwillingness to release details about its risk-assessment tool, used to manage supervision for nearly every offender under its watch for the last eight years, strikes at concerns that have been simmering as Philadelphia prepares to create a similar computer model for use in bail decisions. Some who are watching that process closely have questioned whether the tool will be racially biased, whether the factors it weighs will be made public, and, fundamentally, whether a computer algorithm should play any role in deciding a person’s future.The debate is sure to be rigorous, as it has been in the dozens of other jurisdictions across the country already using risk-assessment tools to help guide decisions about bail, sentencing, and parole. The tools, like judges, are bound to make bad forecasts that could lead to the release of a suspect better kept incarcerated until trial or the over-supervision of a parolee who might then struggle to keep a job. The question that divides the criminal justice world is whether risk-assessment tools make the imperfect process used now better or worse.” Related from BillyPenn: “Can Philly’s new technology predict recidivism without being racist?”

  • More Philly.com: “America, we need to talk about this ‘police riot’ in a major U.S. city”

“We live in a nation that has always given broad leeway to law enforcement, and I have no doubt that many people reading this — perhaps the majority — will insist that the overzealous police response was nonetheless necessitated by the handful of folks among the crowd who did, most regrettably, commit acts or vandalism or violence. But that attitude overlooks the bigger and most alarming reality of what actually has been happening in St. Louis: A police force determined to go well beyond its public-safety responsibilities to assert an intimidating level of social control, to show who runs public spaces in ‘their’ city — them, and not its citizens — while crushing any dissent targeting its own sordid history of misconduct, including a record of white officers killing black civilians at a rate unmatched by other large cities. Lest there be any doubt of this last Sunday night, as scores of people were carted away, deprived of liberty, officers marched in formation through the pacified thoroughfares of St Louis, stunning the remaining journalists and onlookers by chanting, ‘Whose streets? Our streets!’ — both echoing and mocking the protesters in greater St. Louis who have been marching for social justice since the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson. A short time later, the city’s acting police chief bragged that ‘we owned the night.’ Left unanswered was the question of whether a community where police own the streets and own the night is, by definition, a police state.””

THE APPEAL — The Appeal is a weekly newsletter helping to keep you informed about criminal justice news in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and beyond. If you’d like to receive this weekly newsletter, you can subscribe here.

JOIN— The ACLU of Pennsylvania’s mailing list to stay up to date with our work and events happening in your area.

DONATE — The ACLU is comprised of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation. The ACLU Foundation is the arm of the ACLU that conducts our litigation and education efforts. Gifts to the ACLU Foundation are tax-deductible to the donor to the extent permissible by law. Learn more about supporting the work of the ACLU of Pennsylvania here.

“This place would not pass any health codes”

By Emilia Beuger , ACLU-PA Justice Intern

Are conditions in Pennsylvania’s prisons worse than those run by private prison companies? Photo via A.R.M.E.D.

Prisoners don’t get a lot of meaningful attention. Sure, some reality television shows claim to show “life on the inside” while occasional documentaries bring attention to prison conditions. But, for the most part, prisons serve their basic function — that of regulating prisoners’ “movements, activity, and effectiveness,” as Foucault put it, and of separating them from society. Federal civil lawsuits are filed just about every day by Pennsylvania prisoners who claim to have their rights violated behind bars, but it’s not likely you’ll hear anything about them. Prisoners are a concealed population; to most, they may as well not exist.

Which is why it’s been interesting to follow along as conditions within Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections have received attention recently. Pennsylvania’s prisons are allegedly “dirty,” and “not livable.” The treatment that prisoners receive from guards borders on “harassment.” Did something change just recently? Did a major policy shift negatively affect prison conditions for Pennsylvania’s 51,000-odd residential prisoners causing them to speak out? Nope. Turns out, all it took was a view from the outside.

Some background: On June 12, 2017, 269 Vermont prisoners were transferred from Michigan’s North Lake Correctional Facility to SCI Camp Hill — Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution and processing center, near Harrisburg. The Vermont prisoners had been transferred out-of-state due to overcrowding.

Such transfers occur through the Interstate Corrections Compact. Not every state in the country is a member, but most are. Transfers occur mainly due to overcrowding and security issues, and these transfers tend to benefit private prison companies such as Florida-based GEO Group, and the Utah-based Management and Training Corporation. Another private prison contractor, Tennessee-based CoreCivic, housed some 9,500 California prisoners in three states after Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a 2006 state of emergency in Golden State prisons.

But sometimes private prison companies decide they’d rather not bother. That’s what happened in Michigan. GEO Group owns the North Lake Correctional Facility, which was designed to hold nearly 1,800 prisoners. Vermont’s 269 prisoners were the only people inhabiting that facility, so in December 2016, GEO’s executives decided those prisoners weren’t worth the trouble. Vermont’s contract was not renewed.

That turned out to be good financial news for Pennsylvania’s DOC. If GEO Group didn’t want Vermont’s prisoners, Pennsylvania would take them. A three-year agreement was finalized on May 1, 2017, to allow a maximum of 400 Vermont prisoners to be shuttled and dropped into either SCI Camp Hill or SCI Graterford.Vermont would pay $72 per day, per prisoner. Secretary, John E. Wetzel touted the deal to Fox43, noting that Pennsylvania had approximately 5,000 empty beds across the state. “Vermont is looking for beds at the same time we have available beds, so it works out for both states,” he said.

That was more than a little misleading, though. If you look at Pennsylvania’s current monthly population report, sure, it looks like there’s an overall excess of beds statewide. But SCI Graterford, located about 30 miles northwest of Center City Philadelphia, is not only the largest prison in the commonwealth, it’s also one of the most crowded — well over capacity, holding about 110 percent of the number of prisoners it was designed to hold. Same goes for SCI Camp Hill: It’s the commonwealth’s second largest prison, and it’s at more than 105 percent capacity.

Unsurprisingly, the Vermont prisoners — who had the run of a Michigan facility that held only a fraction of the prisoners it was designed to hold — have begun complaining about the conditions at SCI Camp Hill and SCI Graterford. They have expressed concern about “extremely short showers once per day, dirty facilities, only being issued one pair of clothing, and constant yelling and ‘harassment’ from prison guards,” according to the Burlington Free Press. One prisoner recalled being told that “meals here are a privilege not a right.” The prisoners also complained about not having access to a library containing Vermont’s legal code, which is a constitutional right in that state.

Suzi Wizowaty, executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, told the Burlington Free Press that Pennsylvania’s DOC clearly “wasn’t ready for us.”

“This place would not pass any health codes,” she went on. “[It’s] really not livable.”

The Vermont inmates may have had access to an unusual amount of space in Michigan, but they were incarcerated, and under the purview of GEO Group — a company whose privately-operated prisons have faced no shortage of condemnation related to conditions and alleged prisoner abuse.

Prisoners are a concealed population, yes. And, to most, they may as well not exist. But the fact that Pennsylvania’s prisons apparently fail to match up to GEO Group’s track record for prison conditions should concern everyone — whether they make it a habit to follow prison news or not.

Maybe this view from Vermont will grant Pennsylvania’s prisoners more of the meaningful attention they deserve.

IN OTHER NEWS

(Criminal Justice news deserving of an in-depth look)

The Third Circuit ruled last week that recording police in public is a First Amendment right. Photo via Campaign Zero.

  • ACLU of Pennsylvania, via Molly Tack-Hooper, Staff Attorney: “One of the Nation’s Only Judges to Rule Against Right to Record Police Just Got Overturned”

“On July 7, the Third Circuit reversed that ruling, concluding that Mr. Fields and Ms. Geraci’s First Amendment rights had been violated. The court explained that, because the First Amendment plainly protects the right to possess and distribute photos and videos, it must also protect the act of making those photos and videos. But even more importantly, the court explained, the First Amendment protects the right to gather information about public officials, including police officers. Without a constitutional right to collect and disseminate information about the government, the people would be left in the dark, unable to make informed decisions and participate effectively in the democratic process.” Also check out approving nods from Post-GazettePennLive, and Times-Tribune, and a Facebook Live episode with Molly Tack-Hooper and noted beardsman Ben Bowens.

“Pennsylvania Senate Bill 560 is now Act 22 of 2017, loosening rules around police use of cameras. With the legislation signed, more police departments in Pennsylvania could increase their use of cameras, including body-worn cameras. ACLU-PA staffers Elizabeth Randol, Matt Stroud, and Andy Hoover discuss the implications.”

  • Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “Unsettled in America: Pittsburgh’s Latino community is small, diverse, growing — and anxious.”

“The large majority of Latinos are, in fact, U.S. citizens or legal residents. But tensions are high for those who aren’t, and their families, supporters and anyone concerned about a broader anti-Latino backlash. Immigrants and their advocates have marched in various demonstrations in recent months, often joining with refugees and Muslims challenging similar travel restrictions under the Trump administration. Some are calling for Pittsburgh and other local governments to have ‘sanctuary’ status and not cooperate with deportation efforts. Some local immigrants have been deported already, others have been detained and still others, like Mr. Marroquin, are awaiting hearings. Many, though, have lived with knowing their turn may be next, whether they’re farm workers in an outlying county or whether they’re suburban restaurant dish washers.”

THE APPEAL — The Appeal is a weekly newsletter helping to keep you informed about criminal justice news in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and beyond. If you’d like to receive this weekly newsletter, you can subscribe here.

JOIN— The ACLU of Pennsylvania’s mailing list to stay up to date with our work and events happening in your area.

DONATE — The ACLU is comprised of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation. The ACLU Foundation is the arm of the ACLU that conducts our litigation and education efforts. Gifts to the ACLU Foundation are tax-deductible to the donor to the extent permissible by law. Learn more about supporting the work of the ACLU of Pennsylvania here.