Warden defends jail, staff in wake of CO arrest

CO Joseph Black was charged with institutional sexual assault, involuntary deviant sexual intercourse with female imates

By David Singleton
The Times-Tribune

SCRANTON, Pa. — Additional security cameras and other changes at the Lackawanna County Prison make it less likely crimes like those suspended corrections officer Joseph Black is accused of committing would go undetected or unreported, county officials said.

Warden Robert McMillan and members of the prison board came to the defense of the jail and its staff in the wake of Officer Black's arrest on charges he sexually assaulted and abused five female inmates from 2002 to 2011.

"This is a case of one bad apple, and the shame of it is all the good people here get a black eye over it," said Mr. McMillan, who arrived at the jail in June 2011 and suspended Officer Black a few months later.

Police charged Officer Black, 49, of Dickson City, Friday with seven counts each of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and institutional sexual assault, along with other charges. His preliminary hearing is scheduled Monday.

The county grand jury that investigated the officer found he often volunteered to work the Bravo Unit, where women prisoners are housed, and frequently entered the cell blocks and escorted female inmates to other parts of the jail unaccompanied by other officers.

Other employees heard rumors of sexual misconduct by Officer Black, but he ignored their admonishments when confronted about his behavior, investigators said. The coworkers, in turn, were reluctant to report Officer Black to their supervisors because of a culture that dictated one corrections officer should not say anything negative about another.

Mr. McMillan could not speak to the adequacy of the safeguards in place before his appointment but said he has introduced changes aimed at preventing sexual assaults within the facility.

"Whether it is staff on an inmate or an inmate on an inmate, it will not be tolerated," he said. "There is zero tolerance for that type of behavior."

All jail employees are now trained in PREA, or the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act that was enacted in 2003 and revised in 2010, Mr. McMillan said. Inmates have access to a special phone line, which he established, where they can confidentially report sexual assaults directly to the prison security office.

More security cameras have also been installed, to the point there are "very few" areas in the jail that are not monitored, the warden said.

District Attorney Andy Jarbola, who serves on the prison board and whose office brought the charges against the officer, said Officer Black knew which sections of the prison were out of view of the cameras and "was very cautious as to where he did these things."

"When this first came to light, the prison board was made aware of certain information, and steps were taken to get rid of the blind spots and things of that nature where some of this activity took place," Mr. Jarbola said.

The grand jury said other employees observed Officer Black inappropriately interacting with women inmates, pulling their hair, physically placing his hands on them and smacking their buttocks with objects.

If that were to happen today, Mr. McMillan said he believes other corrections officers would not hesitate to call the offending officer on the unprofessional behavior or report it to a supervisor, if only to avoid being reprimanded themselves.

"The difference is, with the cameras everywhere, staff are more responsible," he said. "Staff would stop someone from doing that -- you know, 'What are you doing? Why are you touching that inmate?' The reporting mechanism has all changed."

The code-of-silence culture among corrections officers that was described by the grand jury is also changing, said Mr. Jarbola, pointing out a number of Officer Black's coworkers were among the witnesses who testified before the panel.

He attributed that in part to the new hiring practices the county instituted at the prison in 2008, which have led "to a change in the old way of thinking out there."

"It's taking time for the turnaround," he said. "I think the few bad apples that have been out there are being slowly weeded out. There are a lot of great guards who do their job and they do it well."

Mr. Jarbola said the investigation at the prison remains open.

"Obviously, if there are other allegations, we will look into it," he said.

Commissioner Corey O'Brien, who sits on the prison board, said every allegation about the prison received by the administration is thoroughly reviewed and, if warranted, acted on. But people have to be willing to make a report.

"We can't guess. We can't assume. We need information. If anyone feels victimized, they need to come forward," the commissioner said. "The prison is a tough place to work. It's a tough place to be. Nobody wants to be there, but while people are there, they need to be safe."

Officer Black, who earns $46,000 annually, has been collecting his salary since his suspension in the fall of 2011. Mr. McMillan said if the officer had been suspended without pay, the prison administration would have been obligated to provide him with the details of what was then the developing sexual assault investigation.

"This was unique because it was referred to an outside agency (Mr. Jarbola's office), and they were investigating it," the warden said. "We had to protect our staff and the people in our custody, so we had to put him out until the investigation was completed."

Officer Black's status could be changing.

Now that criminal charges have been filed against the officer, a due process hearing will be scheduled and Mr. McMillan will review the evidence and take "appropriate action," county chief of staff Maria Elkins said Tuesday.


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