Protesters call for accountability at Pa. county prison

Four women last year sued prison officials in federal court alleging repeated sexual assault between 1998 and 2016

By Jon O'Connell
The Times-Tribune, Scranton, Pa.

Enraged by allegations of sexual assault and a cover-up scheme against Lackawanna County Prison officials, a small group gathered Sunday to stand with the victims they see as trapped.

Montana Levinson of Scranton organized the protest after a former inmate, who is now part of an ongoing federal civil lawsuit against dozens of former and current prison officials, contacted her.

The mostly peaceful rally outside the prison walls on North Washington Avenue grew tense when a longtime resident arrived home with her 10-year-old granddaughter and took issue with the protesters' message.

Levinson, 23, in June moved home to Scranton after four years in Portland, Orgeon.

She read about an ongoing state probe and a former prison guard's 2013 conviction of sexually assaulting five inmates. She was struck by the prisoners' perceived helplessness to speak up while incarcerated, in part because she was sexually assaulted while free, she said.

The Times-Tribune does not normally identify victims of sexual assault, but Levinson gave permission to tell her story.

"Myself, personally, and my best friend in college were both sexually assaulted," she said. "I watched what she had to go through in order to get help from that and in order to report it -- it was ridiculous, and caused her so much emotional turmoil."

As the protesters raised signs that read "Stop hiding rape" and "LCP abuses prisoners," some motorists honked and waved.

Four women last year sued prison officials in federal court alleging repeated sexual assault between 1998 and 2016. The suit alleges that when the women attempted to report their attackers, guards berated them and helped their colleagues hide the abuse.

The suit led to an investigation, which has been taken over by the state attorney general's office. Last month state agents descended on the prison and county offices in a dramatic all-day raid to seize records.

County officials have said they welcome the attorney general's probe, and refute the lawsuit's claims.

Lauri Lavelle, who has lived near the prison for 32 years, said the protest, and particularly the signs in the air, were wrong to paint all corrections officers with the same broad brush.

She clashed verbally with the protesters from across the street in defense of those who aren't part of the lawsuit or the attorney general's probe.

"They're doing their job every day, living in a risk every day to make our streets better," she said. "You're going to find bad in everything, I understand that, but that doesn't mean all these COs that work in there, and risk their lives ..."

Montana interrupted her.

"We're not saying 'all,'" she said, and went on to explain that the group protested rape committed by some. They did not gather to impart wholesale guilt on guards, she said.

Lavelle countered that their signs should have been more focused on the wrongdoers.
(c)2017 The Times-Tribune (Scranton, Pa.)

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