Officials: Safety at Pa. Prisons Improved

By Cholodofsky, Rich | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, June 10, 2006 | Go to article overview

Officials: Safety at Pa. Prisons Improved


Cholodofsky, Rich, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Corrections officials contend that recent violent incidents at a Fayette County prison -- a brawl involving 12 inmates and the stabbing of two guards -- were among only a small number statewide and that violence has waned throughout the prison system.

"Our prisons are much safer now than in the past, but no matter how hard we work, situations are going to happen. It is a difficult job. Facilities can go days, weeks, months and years without incidents," said Sue McNaughton, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections.

However, experts who monitor prison violence say the number of incidents in facilities such as the state prison in Fayette are higher than reported.

"There is no doubt in my mind the level of violence in Pennsylvania prisons is significantly higher than they say. It is grossly underreported by inmates," said Jere Krakoff, a Pittsburgh attorney who represents human rights cases filed by prisoners.

According to a national study released this week that examines conditions in U.S. prisons, the true picture of life behind bars is unknown. The year-long study conducted by the Commission on Safety and Abuse of America's Prisons found there is no accurate method to track violent incidents in correctional institutions.

"There is a lack of good knowledge. Too often, we talk about it in terms of anecdotes," said commission Executive Director Alex Busansky. "There is a dearth of information. Without this information, it is difficult to have a real conversation about what is going on."

The commission recommended that a national tracking system of prison assaults be created and that states form an independent oversight committee to monitor activity within prison walls.

Pennsylvania tracks reports of assaults by inmates on other inmates as well as assaults on guards and staff, according to the corrections department.

But the department does not track the number of arrests made by state police for incidents that occur behind bars, and current reports are not available on the department's Web site.

The state prison in Fayette County opened in early 2004 and is one of the three most restrictive institutions in the state, along with the State Correctional Institution in Greene County and Graterford prison near Philadelphia.

Fayette County houses the state's only Long Term Housing Unit, which segregates the worst-behaved inmates in severely restricted units, a situation that facilitates more violent episodes than in most other prisons throughout Pennsylvania.

State corrections officials say most violent assaults involve inmates in restricted or segregated housing units.

Such assaults -- including beatings, stabbings, rapes, threats and incidents where feces and urine are thrown -- have decreased by 15 percent since 2003, according to statistics released by the corrections department. …

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