Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

INVESTIGATION IS COSTLY IN DOLLARS, TIME AND REPUTATIONS Series: BLOCKBUSTED

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

INVESTIGATION IS COSTLY IN DOLLARS, TIME AND REPUTATIONS Series: BLOCKBUSTED

Article excerpt

The inquiry into alleged abuses at the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh has resulted in nine lengthy employee suspensions and three firings that have been challenged in lawsuits or arbitration, and the cost to taxpayers is rising.

This month an arbitrator issued an award that would, if honored, result in the return to work of eight corrections officers with back pay likely exceeding $400,000, meaning they will be paid for time they didn't work and for which the state has already paid someone else. Another officer's arbitration process is ongoing.

Four top administrators at the prison were fired as the allegations emerged, and three of them are suing for damages.

At least three inmates have sued the state for the abuses they said occurred on F Block.

That's the fallout from a prison system internal affairs investigation that produced accusations against seven corrections officers ranging from official oppression to involuntary deviate sexual intercourse.

"This is no win for anybody," said Martin F. Horn, who was the secretary of the Department of Corrections during Gov. Tom Ridge's administration and who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "When something like this happens, it's bad for prison administration, and it takes years for a prison to heal."

Back-pay bill

Of nine corrections officers suspended since the accusations of inmate abuse emerged, two have had all charges dropped and two were never charged. Those four, along with four who are slated to go to trial, won an arbitrator's ruling finding that the Department of Corrections has tried to keep them off work indefinitely based solely on allegations.

"The arbitration order clearly shows the officers were not only treated badly, but their rights as Americans to due process were violated," the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, which represents prison guards, said in a statement.

The resulting bill for back pay is about $1,000 per officer per week. One officer, Harry F. Nicoletti, has been without pay or benefits for 14 months, seven others for 11 months, and one for four months.

The department has not said whether it will appeal the award or return the men to work.

Some suspended officers have gotten unemployment compensation, but family members said they have suffered nonetheless.

"It has affected my credit rating. A couple of my loans are in default," said an immediate family member of one of the officers who does not have charges pending but is still suspended. The family member asked for anonymity to avoid retaliation. "I wonder how I'm going to buy food."

Although the department hasn't been paying the officers, internal investigators have been calling them in for periodic interviews. Family members and attorneys for some of the men said the interviews appear aimed to set them up to be fired. …

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