In this edition: Arbitration decision orders reinstatement of suspended SCI Pittsburgh guards; Corrections Officers Earn More than Ranking Guards; Kirk Bloodsworth, first to be exonerated by DNA evidence speaks in Pittsburgh and more…
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News from the Inside
Arbitration decision orders reinstatement of suspended SCI Pittsburgh guards: 8 prison guards were suspended without pay last year pending investigations into scores of allegations of sexual, physical, and verbal abuses suffered by prisoners at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Pittsburgh. Correctional Officer Harry Nicoletti was suspended on 92 criminal charges including sexual assault, criminal oppression, and terroristic threats. The criminal complaints were filed September 27, 2010 and he was suspended without pay on January 5, 2011. The remaining guards were suspended without pay on April 1, 2011.
The Office of Special Investigations and Intelligence (OSII), which is the internal investigation unit of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, conducted an investigation into the allegations. Six other guards have been criminally charged in the scandal, though two have subsequently had the charges against them dropped. In early December, the United States Department of Justice announced that it was investigating
the rape and torture scandal that has become known as Abu Ghraib on the Allegheny.
On October 28, 2011, the 8 suspended guards had a hearing with arbitrator Ronald F. Talarico. The arbitrators’ decision was that all 8 of the officers should be reinstated and awarded back pay on the grounds that their due process rights were violated. Although the finding was based on the failure of the PA DOC to grant the guards a hearing in which they could confront the charges against them, it is unclear why the arbitrator held that reinstatement—rather than a hearing on the allegations—was the appropriate course.
Corrections Officers Earn More than Ranking Guards:
The Post Gazette
found that the highest paid employee at SCI Pittsburgh this past year, because of overtime earnings, was not a high ranking official, but a corrections officer. Statistics of the average pay per employee uncovered by a Right-to-Know request to the Department of Corrections showed that sergeants, who are one rank above corrections officers, made the most money on average. The sergeants annual pay averaged $20,000 more than captains or lieutenants, who rank higher and have more responsibility, but do not have union representation or access to overtime hours.
Overtime is the gift that keeps on giving for retired employees who earn an annual pension based on their three highest earning years. This past year, 21 of 23 employees who brought home wages of over $100,000 were correctional officers. The prison employed 679 employees and paid a total of 31.7 million dollars in staff pay, 5.5 million of which was overtime. A total of 50 million dollars was paid in overtime by the Department of Corrections throughout the year.
A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections stated that the causes of the widespread use of overtime were vacant positions, military deployment, call offs, and long term absences. PA Senator David Argall is drafting legislation to revert the pay scale, calling it a public safety problem. A group of Captains and Lieutenants formed the Commissioned Officers Association to organize ranking officers to address the problem. Some ranking officers have taken voluntary demotions to tap into the lucrative overtime wages. The article raised questions as to how many hours a guard could work and stay sane. Its focus was SCI Pittsburgh, which is under investigation by the justice department for official abuse of prisoners.
Governor Corbett is allocating 8.2 million to the Department of Corrections to bail out the imbalance and to boost pay for middle workers. This is in addition to maintaining state funding to corrections with deep cuts to education, health and social spending. Corbett has also approved 685 million dollars to be used to construct new prison facilities and expand others.
Witness to innocence Kirk Bloodsworth: On Sunday, February 26, Kirk Bloodsworth spoke at an event in Pittsburgh for Witness to Innocence. He was the first person to be exonerated through DNA testing. He was convicted of the 1984 rape and murder of 9-year old Dawn Hamilton in Maryland and sentenced to death. His conviction was based on testimony from five witnesses who claimed they saw him with or in the vicinity of the victim. He did not fit the description of the perpetrator whatsoever, nor did the actual murderer, reflecting how witness testimonies are often flawed and unreliable. The description of the murderer put him at 6’5" with blonde hair, yet Bloodsworth is only 6’ tall with red hair. The real murderer, Kimberly Shay Ruffner, who they eventually caught after Bloodsworth was exonerated, is 5’6". During his first trial the prosecution withheld potential exculpatory evidence. His first conviction was overturned based on this evidence and he was granted a second trial. The same five witnesses testified at his second trial. He was convicted again and sentenced to two life sentences. During Kirk Bloodsworth’s time in prison he was housed in the same prison as the real murderer, who was serving time for another rape he’d been caught for.
One day Kirk received a book called The Blooding, about the first case to use DNA evidence to solve a crime. It occurred to him that if DNA could be used to convict someone, it could be used to prove someone’s innocence. He made calls and wrote letters to everyone he could. He received a letter stating, “We regret to inform you the DNA has been inadvertently destroyed.” Kirk said, “As I sat on my bunk with my head in my hands, it dawned on me, they don’t know where it is!” Bloodsworth continued to make countless phone calls and wrote countless letters. After much persuasion, he convinced Bob Warren to go look for the evidence. He went to the Maryland courthouse and could not find it in the evidence room. He ran into a court clerk and told him what he was looking for. The clerk said, “I know where it is, it’s in the judges closet sitting on the floor." Sure enough, all the evidence was found sitting in a paper bag on the floor of the second judge’s closet. Kirk finally got his DNA test, but not before his mother passed away. She passed away as her son was still sitting in prison, waiting for the results to exonerate him, a reality he still struggles with to this day. In December 1994, Maryland Governor William Donald Schaefer granted Kirk a full pardon based on innocence. He is one of the few death row survivors exonerated to receive compensation from the state they were incarcerated in.
Kirk Bloodsworth states “Preservation of evidence is really key in this country. We have DNA laws on the books, but I think Pennsylvania is really weak in this area. You don’t have a preservation of evidence statute. I’m telling you; after you’ve been tried they can toss it away. They can throw it away, get rid of it, and nobody can say anything different about it.”
Even after he was released in 1993, it took the government until 2003 to test the evidence to look for the real killer. In 2004, Ruffner plead guilty to the 1984 murder. He was already serving a 45-year sentence for an unrelated burglary, rape, and attempted murder. Kirk Bloodsworth states, “When I was asked if I thought Ruffner should get the death penalty I said absolutely not! I’ll tell you why. If we execute them it takes away their accountability. They are no longer accountable for what they did. Only with their life, they have to live with what they did. Even the bad boys of this world, because I hear stories about how they, want to keep it for the worst of the worst. That’s not happening in this country. The majority of the one percenters do not get the death penalty to start with. And another reason is 67% of all death penalty cases are in error by technical merit alone. There are racial disparities, geographical disparities, it is not fairly applied. It shouldn’t be applied at all.”
The radical right-wing activist U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has asserted that “Factual innocence is no reason to stop a death sentence properly rendered.” To this Bloodsworth says, “One of the biggest problems in this country is that we do not have a constitutional right to innocence. In other words, if you have a fair trial and they said you can die, that’s the game. That’s it. They can kill you. That is what has to change. I guarantee you, if that changes, boy we would have a better criminal justice system across the board.” Kirk Bloodsworth now speaks around the country for Witness to Innocence, and is a program officer for The Justice Project. He is an ardent supporter of the Innocence Protection Act, which passed in congress in 2000. This established the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program, to help offset the costs of post conviction DNA testing.
Across the Nation
(click RealCostofPrisonsProject for more national news)
Illinois Governor proposes closing Tamms Supermax: On February 22, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn announced his proposal to close the notorious Tamm’s supermax prison in southern Illinois, as well as a women’s supermax prison in Dwight, Illinois. The 400-bed Tamm’s supermax was meant to be a short-term high security prison that would also be home to the state’s death row when Illinois still carried out the death penalty. In reality, the prison became a place where prisoners were warehoused in long-term solitary confinement, which at Tamm’s is 23-hour lockdown with no phone calls, contact visits or communal activities. In 2009, a group of advocates put together the “Tamms Year Ten” campaign, which aimed to expose the torturous conditions at Tamms as well as the fact that a third of the prisoners present at the opening of the prison were still be held in solitary confinement, ten years later.
In the years that followed several articles were published in Illinois about the conditions at Tamms which included the practice of placing prisoners in “dry cells” as punishment, where they are clothed with only a paper smock and placed in a bare cell with only a mattress, a practice commonly used in PA prisons as well. Then, in 2009 a federal judge ruling on a prisoner’s lawsuit described conditions at Tamms as imposing “dramatic limitations on human contact, so much so as to inflict lasting psychological damage and emotional harm on inmates confined there for long periods.” His ruling reflected the incredibly high rate of mental illness among prisoners at Tamms, and many believe legitimized the claims made by human rights advocates for years that solitary confinement indeed is a form of torture.
Though all of these factors led to Governor Quinn’s announcement, the economic burden that is Tamms prison surely did as well. Because of the high level of security at Tamms, it costs the state $92,000 a year to house each prisoner, and in a state facing the economic troubles seen around the nation it became increasingly obvious that, in the words of Laurie Jo Reynolds of the Tamms Year Ten campaign, "we just pay for excess correctional staff to shackle the prisoners
, move them around, and push food into their cells. Then we pay to treat them when they become insane due to the isolation.” According to a 2010 report from PEW Center on the States, Illinois is among 26 states whose prison populations are on the decline, and whose collective decreases led to the first decrease in the national prison population in 2009 since 1972. The same report showed Pennsylvania being among only eight states that increased their prison population by more than 3%, with a 4.3% prison population increase.
Mississippi Bans Solitary Confinement of Kids Convicted as Adults: On March 22, 2012, a federal court in Jackson, Mississippi, will enter a groundbreaking consent decree banning the horrendous practice of subjecting kids convicted as adults to solitary confinement. The decree will also require the state to transfer such kids out of the brutally violent privately run prison where they are currently housed, subjected to adult correctional standards and transfer them to a stand-alone facility operated in accordance with juvenile justice standards. Currently, youth as young as 13 convicted as adults in Mississippi are sent to the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility (WGYCF), which is operated by GEO Group, Inc., the nation’s second largest for-profit prison corporation.
The pending consent decree is the result of a class action lawsuit filed in November 2010 by the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center that challenged the brutal and hyper-violent conditions at WGYCF. The lawsuit describes GEO staff peddling drugs to the teenagers in their custody, subjecting them to brutal beatings and sexual exploitation and failing to protect them from violence by older prisoners – one teenager suffered permanent brain damage as a result of an attack in which GEO staffs were complicit.
The suit also challenged the barbaric practice of housing kids in solitary confinement as a form of punishment. While in solitary, the youth are held in almost complete isolation and sensory deprivation with virtually no human contact, material possession for recreational activity (e.g., books or paper and pens), and are denied all visits, telephone calls and even mail from their families. If a kid is tagged suicidal, which are often done with punitive motives – that kid is stripped naked except for a paper gown and denied a mattress.
Since the 1990s, 47 states have made it easier to try and incarcerate kids as adults.
Philly area: Wednesdays are Write On! Prison Letter Writing Night at the LAVA space at 4134 Lancaster, 6-9 pm. Come help us stay connected with the many prisoners who write to us with news from inside, learn to document crimes committed by prison staff, and help bring an end to the abuse and torture of our brothers and sisters behind bars.
If you’d like to know more about the Human Rights Coalition or would like to get involved, come to Write On!, to our monthly general meetings (second Monday of each month, 6pm), or call us at 215-921-3491, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
, or visit our website at http://www.hrcoalition.org./
Write On! – Letter writing to prisoners and HRC work night every Wednesday at 5129 Penn Avenue from 7 -10pm. To get involved with HRC/Fed Up! in Pittsburgh, email: email@example.com
or call 412-654-9070.
You’ve been listening to the Human Rights Coalition’s PA Prison Report. HRC is a group of current and former prisoners, family members, and supporters, whose ultimate goal is to abolish prisons.
Keep up the fight!