Prison safety advocates, lawmakers call for increased oversight

Pennsylvania

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — A rally at the state Capitol saw prison safety advocates and lawmakers call for more oversight of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

The state Corrections Officers Association says violent attacks on corrections officers are on the rise in Pennsylvania, partly due to prison closures leading to overcrowding. ​

“We’ve seen a string of violent attacks on officers, but our department will tell you that the assaults were down, particularly the major assaults,” said Larry Blackwell, president of the state Corrections Officers Association. “There’s no accountability for bad behavior inside our prisons.”​

Association members say the Department of Corrections spins numbers to make the issue appear less serious, with certain assaults not considered “major assaults.”

Specifically, they say an inmate attacking an officer with bodily fluid would not be considered a “major assault,” though a Corrections Department representative said that was inaccurate during a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday.​

According to the association, it’s estimated that more than 100 inmates paroled last year would go on to commit a capital crime, including murder; more than 1,750 parolees would commit violent crimes and 60% of all parolees return to prison within three years.​

“We release about 19,000 people. There’s always going to be a number but I think we can reduce that number,” said Corrections Department Secretary John Wetzel. “But to contextualize that number, it’s trending in the right direction.”​

Sen. David Argall announced he anticipates introducing bipartisan legislation to create a Corrections Officers’ Bill of Rights, which would include allowing them to appeal during disciplinary proceedings.​

The Department of Corrections released the following statement to ABC27 Wednesday afternoon: ​

“The DOC has made significant strides in reducing inmate-on-staff assaults over the past several years. The inmate-on-staff assault rate in 2019 is 20 percent lower than it was in 2015, which indicates our employees and inmates are safer now than they were just five years ago. 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. ​

“We constantly monitor the populations of our facilities and transfer inmates throughout the system to balance any population concerns. The DOC uses a variety of methods to track trends in the system, and we take necessary steps to work to reduce assaults and violence and to provide our employees with tools and skills to do the same. All of the DOC officers carry pepper spray and all staff has been trained in an assault management application, interpersonal communications, de-escalation techniques, mental health first aid, crisis intervention and more. The DOC also recently made protective vests available to employees.​

“In addition to systemic enhancements and changes made over the past two years, the DOC implemented a violence reduction initiative (VRI) at all state prisons. This initiative clearly informs inmates of sanctions to be used in response to violence. Sanctions range from in-cell restriction, housing unit lockdown, placement in the restricted housing unit and locking down of an entire prison.​

“The DOC will continue ongoing efforts to protect our employees and inmates.”​

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