Inmate advocate groups push for reforms at Pa. prison

The push comes after seven current and former COs were arrested on sex charges involving female inmates

By Jeff Horvath
The Times-Tribune, Scranton, Pa.

SCRANTON, Pa. — Stephanie Bressler, Ph.D., expected a large crowd at Wednesday’s Lackawanna County Prison Board meeting, the first since seven current and former guards were arrested Feb. 14 on sex charges involving female inmates.

Instead — a week to the day after the arrests, which state Attorney General Josh Shapiro described as the “opening chapter” in an ongoing investigation into allegations of sexual abuse and abuse of power at the jail — the audience at the meeting was made up mostly of the same familiar faces.

“I really expected lots of people to be there (Wednesday), if for no other reason than to just be there and listen, hoping that they’d hear something,” Bressler, a co-founder of the activist group Progressive Women of NEPA, said. “I expected the meeting ... to be packed. It was not packed, but I also think that a lot of people don’t realize you can just show up.”

Showing up is what Progressive Women has done since its inception in December 2016, the same month Scranton attorney Matthew Comerford filed an amended lawsuit on behalf of several inmates alleging guards repeatedly sexually assaulted and abused them. Formed in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, members of the group pegged prison reform as one of their many priorities, especially as it relates to incarcerated women.

“We went there, and I always say it was like peeling an onion,” Bressler said of attending prison board meetings. “There was one problem after another that we thought we should look into.”

Seeking transparency

Beyond the allegations of abuse, Progressive Women pushed for transparency from the board and called for it to solicit a request for proposals for various prison contracts, including one for inmate medical services. The group also called for the prison to reinstate its GED program and for female inmates to be given the same opportunity to make money as their male counterparts while incarcerated, among other concerns often outlined in letters the group gave the board.

The advocacy has not been fruitless, as the prison opened higher-paying jobs to female inmates and the board conducted a request for proposals for the medical contract, despite ultimately rehiring its medical services provider, Moosic-based Correctional Care Inc.

In his report Wednesday, Warden Tim Betti said he’ll seek authorization to use funds from the inmate canteen account, roughly $120,000 annually, to bring back the GED program and offer classes to approximately 80 inmates per year.

Betti also announced plans for a new program allowing incarcerated mothers to record themselves reading storybooks that will be sent, along with the recordings, to their children. The program is the product of a cooperative effort involving the prison and various entities, including the activist group NEPA Prison Advocates.

Efforts to reach Betti were unsuccessful Friday.

More work to do

Despite some progress, Progressive Women co-founder Jean Harris, Ph.D., said much more needs to be done to address these and other issues.

“A large percentage of the inmates in the prison have not been found guilty of anything. They’re there because they couldn’t afford bail, unlike the prison guards who were charged,” Harris said. “Are we trying to give them Jacuzzis? No. We want them to have healthy diets. Not have to fear that they’ll be abused in any way. ... We’re talking about basic human needs and rights.”

Matt Clemente and Beth Ann Zero, co-founders of NEPA Prison Advocates, expressed a similar sentiment. Representatives from their group also attend prison board meetings and have called for increased transparency, policy reforms and the humane treatment of inmates.

“We’re not saying that prison should be a happy experience. It’s punishment, but it shouldn’t be torture,” said Clemente, a defense attorney and Luzerne County public defender who lives in Dunmore. “I think (Lackawanna County Prison) should adopt the Hippocratic Oath of ‘do no harm.’ We shouldn’t be breaking people who are broken to begin with.”

On Wednesday, Zero read from a letter drafted by Clemente containing more than 20 questions for the board. One question asked if the board would consider establishing a working group composed of officials, residents and prison advocacy groups to study the issue of systemic sexual abuse and harassment at the jail.

“We’re trying to focus on the future and work with the prison to fix these issues,” Clemente said, noting the group hopes to act as a mediator between inmates and the prison administration.

Reached Friday, prison board member and county Controller Gary DiBileo said he supports collaboration and welcomes the suggestion that the entities form a working group.

“The groups that advocate at our meetings are concerned for the inmates, as are we as a board,” DiBileo said, noting the prison camera system has been expanded and that mandates of the Prison Rape Elimination Act have been implemented at the jail since he joined the board in 2012.

“I know I see eye-to-eye with them. We want the same things.”

Commissioner Laureen Cummings, also a prison board member, applauded the groups for their activism and said Betti and the board are working hard to address their concerns.

Arguing many of the problems at the prison happened before the current board’s tenure, Commissioner Jerry Notarianni said he’s not opposed to the idea of forming a working group.

“A lot of the issues are things from the past that we don’t have any control over,” Notarianni said. “All we can do is make sure nothing like that happens going forward.”

Both Progressive Women and NEPA Prison Advocates believe the way to do that is to increase oversight and involve more people in the conversation, including advocates for the incarcerated.

While not committing to forming any group without consulting the rest of the prison board, Judge James Gibbons, the board chairman, said he appreciates the groups’ input.

“They are not shy about telling us what they think, and that’s great,” Gibbons said. “There’s always merit (in) listening to ... what people have to say.”

©2018 The Times-Tribune (Scranton, Pa.)

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