“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.

Could a private prison in Berks turn Trump’s immigration policy into a for-profit venture?

By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher, ACLU of Pennsylvania

One of Pennsylvania’s two for-profit prisons — for now. Photo via Philly.com.

 With Pennsylvania’s troubling record of sending more kids to prison for life thann any other state; of shielding body camera footage from the public; of indefinitely placing people into solitary confinement; and other blatant civil rights violations in the name of criminal justice, you might be surprised to know that Pennsylvania is not overrun with private prisons.

That’s right. Much attention has been given — by me, even — to the river of salivation flowing from the mouths of private prison CEOs and investors as President Donald Trump took office and promised to round up, incarcerate, and deport every single one of the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. But those rounded up in Pennsylvania by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have been detained in institutions run by government entities, not companies. Those include the Pike and Clinton County Correctional Facilities, the York County Prison, and the Berks Family Residential Center — all operated by government employees.

But things may be changing in Pennsylvania.

In Berks County, leaders have been actively discussing how to pay for a new county jail — a project that could cost as much as $158 million. In a discussion last week, county commissioners said, according to WFMZ, that “privatization needs to at least be an option for the sake of the taxpayers.”

No, it doesn’t.

You don’t need to read Shane Bauer’s 36,000-word Mother Jones cover story about working undercover in a private prison to know how bad they are. You don’t need to fully understand the extent to which the rapes of female detainees at a CoreCivic property in Taylor, Texas, represented the failure of the private detention industry. You don’t need to revisit the “kids for cash” scandal over judicial kickbacks at the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas to understand the pollution of privatizing systems of incarceration: These prisons are chronically understaffed, often poorly constructed, dangerous, and prisoners receive even less in the way of treatment and rehabilitation than they would in a government-run prison.

And while the jail privatization discussion in Berks does not involve housing detainees on behalf of ICE yet, it’s more than conceivable that it might. The numbers that have emerged about ICE’s Pennsylvania operations indicate it’s arresting more people and deporting fewer. If that trend continues, ICE is going to need more space. Berks County Prison sits a half-mile from ICE’s Berks Family Residential Center. Executives with GEO Group or CoreCivic might suggest the jail lend a helping hand — at taxpayer expense, of course.

That Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system is largely devoid of private prisons is a favorable note in a foul cacophony: While commonwealth-based ICE officers round up undocumented residents at record numbers — often taking them from their children and families and friends — at least they’re not currently doing so at the behest of CoreCivic’s or GEO Group’s stockholders. CoreCivic operates zero prisons in Pennsylvania; GEO Group runs only two — one on behalf of Delaware County, the other for low-level offenders with the federal Bureau of Prisons. Compare that to Texas, where GEO operates nine prisons in the Rio Grande region alone, three on behalf of ICE.

ICE’s increasing arrests within the commonwealth are appalling, just like virtually every other effect of the Trump Administration’s caustic rhetoric, contentious policy decisions, and appointments in the name of profit-seeking.

Let’s not add another note to that foul cacophony.

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

No justice, no police. Illustration from the Post-Gazette.
  • Post-Gazette: “Flawed reforms alienate good cops and prolong a crisis”

“In an April interview, Emily Sussman of the Center for American Progress stated that Department of Justice investigations establish systemic corruption before imposing decrees. But in 1997 DOJ did not interview a single Pittsburgh officer, did not allow the police union (the Fraternal Order of Police) any input and ignored a 10-year performance audit by the city controller that largely contradicted their investigation (of which there is no written record). The federal action was based on 66 uncorroborated ACLU complaints. Five years and millions of Pittsburgh tax dollars later, only five cases went to court: cops 2, plaintiffs 3. One plaintiff got $3,000 and the other two got nothing. Federal judges in Torrance, Calif., and Columbus, Ohio, dismissed DOJ ‘investigations’ without trials.” (Of note: This author, a retired Pittsburgh cop and Allegheny County detective, is speaking today — Friday, September 15, at 1 p.m. — at a Duquesne University seminar.)

  • Take Care: “More Empty Threats: The Trump Administration’s Latest Attack on Sanctuary Cities”

“Nowhere has Congress authorized the Attorney General to impose his new conditions on Byrne JAG funding. The purpose of the Byrne JAG program wasn’t to conscript state and local police into enforcing federal immigration law. It was to provide federal grants, mostly based upon set formulas, to support state and local decisions about policing and public safety. Whatever you think of the Byrne JAG program, and there are reasons to think that it ‘gets used for some truly terribly practices,’ there is no clear authorization in the Byrne JAG statute for the Attorney’s General’s conditions.” (Hattip: Dylan Cowart, ACLU-PA’s new Legal Fellow in Pittsburgh)

  • UPDATE: On the shooting of Christopher Mark Thompkins

Last month, we called your attention to the case of Christopher Thompkins, who was shot and killed by Pittsburgh police on his front porch in January. Information about the investigation into that shooting has been nonexistent in the nearly eight months since it occurred, and we called out Allegheny County’s district attorney, Stephen A. Zappala, Jr., for not being more transparent about what’s going on. To his credit, Zappala has now spoken out, and what he’s said is surprising. From this morning’s Post-Gazette:

“Mr. Zappala said his office has for years has had a relationship with the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police that allowed his investigators access to and control of the scene of a fatal officer-involved shooting. But he said that did not happen after 57-year-old Christopher Mark Thompkins was shot Jan. 22 inside his home on Finley Street. ‘On that particular matter, the city unilaterally changed their relationship with my office,’ Mr. Zappala said. ‘I’m not satisfied we were able to get on scene in a timely fashion and talk to people who could give us evidence. The matter is being investigated, but we are using a different mechanism.’”

In other words: There may be a grand jury investigating this case. Stay tuned.

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.