By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher, ACLU of Pennsylvania
Let’s talk about the raid at Lackawanna County prison.
During more than 10 hours last Thursday, investigators with the Pennsylvania State Police and the state Attorney General’s office descended upon county facilities in Scranton.
We linked to a related story last week, but it’s worth some further contextualization. Though Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office has been mum on the reason for the law enforcement attention, multiple news outlets reported that it involved a grand jury investigation into allegations of sexual abuse. The Times-Tribune even added up the tab that Lackawanna County has paid thus far to correctional officers placed on administrative leave while the investigation unfolds.
If it does involve sexual abuse allegations, there are some hints about where its focus might lay.
Have a look at this civil complaint. It’s horrifying. It alleges that numerous current and former Lackawanna County correctional officers — such as John Shnipes, who was forced to resign in 2013, and William Shanley, who now serves as a captain at the prison — used the institution as grooming ground for perverse sexual conquests with female inmates both inside the prison and while inmates were on work release. Not only does it allege that COs carried out continual sexual attacks on multiple female prisoners, but it explicitly accuses other officers and high-level officials of perpetuating an elaborate cover up.
Just as an example (and there are many in the complaint), county prison officials, for years, received troubling information about Schnipes’ sexual attacks at the prison. They even convened a grand jury in 2010 to investigate him. Between 2011 and 2013 — while he was under active investigation — the complaint says Schnipes continued sexually assaulting women at the prison, and even set up other COs to carry out similar attacks.
Schnipes was eventually forced out. But there have been allegations — some in court, as recently as this year — that whatever actions occurred following that grand jury investigation were little more than window dressing to give the appearance of aggressive oversight while a broader sexual assault conspiracy continued.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that was the case. As outlined in the civil complaint, Patrick O’Malley — a Lackawanna County Commissioner who served as a corrections officer at the county prison for 15 years — is alleged to have shared information that he learned from Prison Board meetings to a CO who had come under fire, “warning her that she was going to be investigated.” The complaint concludes that “this was part of the cover-up and conspiracy perpetrated by him and other policy makers which caused Plaintiffs to be assaulted and caused the delay in them uncovering the current cause of action.”
As the Times-Tribune’s Borys Krawczeniuk pointed out on Sunday, Lackawanna County prison has a shocking history of criminal staff behavior. Institutional sex crimes are only part of it: Employees have been accused of physical assault, graft, failing to treat sick and injured inmates, and even failing to perform simple housekeeping duties.
“No prison is as dirty as this one,” a source told Krawczeniuk.
That source was being literal — referring to employees actually failing to clean dirt and grime from the prison. But he may as well have been speaking of the culture as a whole.
Whatever the outcome of Shapiro’s probe, there are a lot of questions that need to be answered about Lackawanna County prison.
Maybe soon we’ll have answers.
IN OTHER NEWS
(Criminal justice news deserving of an in-depth look.)
- Philly.com: “How computers are predicting crime — and potentially impacting your future”
“‘The sad thing is you risk shooting yourself in the foot when you behave as if you have something to hide,’ Berk said. ‘There’s nothing to hide.’ Probation and Parole’s unwillingness to release details about its risk-assessment tool, used to manage supervision for nearly every offender under its watch for the last eight years, strikes at concerns that have been simmering as Philadelphia prepares to create a similar computer model for use in bail decisions. Some who are watching that process closely have questioned whether the tool will be racially biased, whether the factors it weighs will be made public, and, fundamentally, whether a computer algorithm should play any role in deciding a person’s future.The debate is sure to be rigorous, as it has been in the dozens of other jurisdictions across the country already using risk-assessment tools to help guide decisions about bail, sentencing, and parole. The tools, like judges, are bound to make bad forecasts that could lead to the release of a suspect better kept incarcerated until trial or the over-supervision of a parolee who might then struggle to keep a job. The question that divides the criminal justice world is whether risk-assessment tools make the imperfect process used now better or worse.” Related from BillyPenn: “Can Philly’s new technology predict recidivism without being racist?”
- More Philly.com: “America, we need to talk about this ‘police riot’ in a major U.S. city”
“We live in a nation that has always given broad leeway to law enforcement, and I have no doubt that many people reading this — perhaps the majority — will insist that the overzealous police response was nonetheless necessitated by the handful of folks among the crowd who did, most regrettably, commit acts or vandalism or violence. But that attitude overlooks the bigger and most alarming reality of what actually has been happening in St. Louis: A police force determined to go well beyond its public-safety responsibilities to assert an intimidating level of social control, to show who runs public spaces in ‘their’ city — them, and not its citizens — while crushing any dissent targeting its own sordid history of misconduct, including a record of white officers killing black civilians at a rate unmatched by other large cities. Lest there be any doubt of this last Sunday night, as scores of people were carted away, deprived of liberty, officers marched in formation through the pacified thoroughfares of St Louis, stunning the remaining journalists and onlookers by chanting, ‘Whose streets? Our streets!’ — both echoing and mocking the protesters in greater St. Louis who have been marching for social justice since the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson. A short time later, the city’s acting police chief bragged that ‘we owned the night.’ Left unanswered was the question of whether a community where police own the streets and own the night is, by definition, a police state.””
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