Culture at Lackawanna prison led to sex abuse scandal, says attorney general

  • Borys Krawczeniuk
  • February 19, 2018
  • Standard Speaker

State Attorney General Josh Shapiro said the Lackawanna County Prison’s inmate sexual abuse scandal unfolded because of an ingrained “culture” that allowed it to happen.

Prison watchdog groups say he is right.

“I think culture is the right word,” said Jesse Lerner-Kinglake, communications director for Just Detention International, a Los Angeles-based inmate advocacy group that focuses on prison sexual abuse. “I think that if you want to boil it down, the essence of the problem is this: facilities that are well-run do not have a problem with sexual violence. Facilities that are poorly run do have problems with sexual abuse.”

Shapiro’s agents and state police charged seven current and former male prison guards with coercing female inmates into sexual encounters that date back to 2000 for at least one guard.

The attorney general said the investigation “is very much ongoing.”

“Where you have this kind of pervasive culture, you have to wonder how far up the chain this goes,” Shapiro said, all but promising more arrests.

The lawyer for three guards called the female inmates’ claims “trumped up” and designed to win them a financial settlement from the county. He and other lawyers said they plan to contest the charges and their clients look forward to their day in court.

The guards charged are George T. McHale, James J. Walsh, Jeffrey T. Staff, Paul J. Voglino, George R. Efthimiou and Mark A. Johnson. Former guard John J. Shnipes Jr., a former Archbald councilman, is also charged. The seven posted bail and are free; their preliminary hearings are set for 11:15 a.m. Friday. Efforts to reach Warden Tim Betti were unsuccessful. In an interview Wednesday, Betti said he lacked the ability to investigate in as much depth as the attorney general, saying the inmates’ claims boiled down to “he-said, she-said” disputes.

“I didn’t have evidence for either side,” Betti said.

In a statement Thursday, the county declared the prison safe. The statement said many of the allegations occurred many years ago and prison officials take prisoner safety seriously. The county placed the accused guards on administrative leave.

Lack of oversight

Inmate advocates said they are unfamiliar with the county’s procedures, but seriously doubt everything is fine.

“Obviously, there’s a lack of oversight, there’s a failure to properly train, and failure to properly supervise sections of the prison where there’s male-female relationships,” said Angus Love, executive director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project.

The county jail has had five permanent and two interim wardens since January 2003, the year the first major scandal broke. That one entailed the warden and others using inmates to do work at their homes or on their cars, a guard beating inmates and guards having sex with inmates.

In 2007, a woman gave birth in a jail cell, despite pleading for guards to take her to the hospital. In 2010, an inmate awaiting sentencing on child pornography charges was almost beaten to death by another inmate.

State inspections found improved and sometimes exemplary performances by the county jail in some years — particularly after nothing has gone wrong for a while — while pointing out a lack of training and other violations after major incidents.

Now, there is this scandal, perhaps the worst so far.

Love likened jail life to “a three-ring circus” with the warden in one ring, inmates in another and guards and other staff in the other.

“It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it and they’ve got to do it right, and apparently it wasn’t filtering down to the rank and file,” Love said. “A lot of times, there’s tension between the warden and the staff. … The staff is ingrained, been there forever, do things a certain way and the warden comes on and tries to change things and isn’t always successful.”

He suggested prison camera monitoring. Lackawanna County Prison added a new camera system over the years, though at least some of the sex with inmates in the latest case is alleged to have happen before the system’s installation.

“The administration should be cognizant of those gaps in the system and take extra care to make sure such things don’t occur,” he said.

Love also suggested hiring wardens from outside the region.

“Some counties do a national search for a warden,” he said. “They get reputable people from the state system.”

The county did that for past wardens, but Betti was a longtime county prison guard before he was named warden two years ago.

Sense of order

Allen J. Beck, senior statistical advisor for the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, said the bureau’s studies show better jails have a sense of order.

“One of the things we learned about was facilities that have high rates of disorder have high rates of sexual violence, high rates of staff sexual misconduct,” Beck said.

He defined disorder as gang activity, fighting between inmates, a lack of trust between staff and inmates and a lack of confidence in staff to enforce the rules. Understaffing and a lack of training can contribute to disorder, Beck said.

He said a bureau study six years ago — an update is due in April — found women represented about 13 percent of inmates in local jails but make up 67 percent of all victims of jail sexual abuse. The study showed males are 80 percent of the perpetrators.

“It’s very clear that when it involves male staff, that staff are much more likely than female staff who get involved to use force, particularly in jails,” Beck said.

Lerner-Kinglake called prison sexual abuse “a nationwide crisis,” pointing out it prompted the 2003 federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.

“In any year, roughly 200,000 adults and children are sexually abused in U.S. detention facilities … 200,000 adults and kids in any given year is a horrifying number,” he said.

Victoria Law, a New York-based inmate advocate who wrote a book on incarcerated women, “Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women,” said prisons must break codes of silence that develop among guards. Prisons must make it easy for inmates to report abuse without fear of retaliation.

She drew a portrait of female inmates taking abuse because they fear “somebody who literally holds the keys to your freedom.”

“They feel coerced into doing things so even if there’s no spoken physical threat or assault or retaliation, people feel that they need to comply because there’s somebody who can make their lives so much worse,” Law said. “(It’s the guard saying) I’ll let you have that roll of toilet paper or I’ll let you walk out of the dining room with that apple. I’ll turn the other eye when you do these things. Or I won’t hassle your mom when she comes to visit and you can actually just enjoy your visit, and I won’t put her through all kinds of degradation to come and see you.”

No reason to fear

Shapiro tried to address exactly that fear when he asked people who might know about abuse at Lackawanna County Prison to call a new hotline, 570-846-4074. He told victims they don’t have to fear the guards anymore because someone is listening.

“If you look at the Lackawanna County Jail, there are probably more people that … basically are like, ‘I just want to do my time and go home,’” Law said. “I don’t want to be subjected to retaliation. I don’t want the guards to make my life harder.”

Lerner-Kinglake said a prison administration really committed to treating inmates properly will eliminate sexual violence.

“We know that in some facilities the rates of abuse are extremely high and other facilities have virtually eliminated this abuse, which reflects the fact that prisoner rape is not an inevitable part of incarceration that many people think that it is,” he said.

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