The Department of Justice has opened civil investigations into two regional state operated correctional facilities in response to allegations that they failed to protect inmate from violence and sexual violence.
In accordance with the pattern or practice provision of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), the department will investigate allegations that SCI Pittsburgh failed to adequately protect prisoners from harm, including from prisoner-on-prisoner and officer-on-prisoner violence and sexual violence, in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In addition, the department will look into whether SCI Pittsburgh officers systematically targeted prisoners for violence and other abuse based on the prisoners’ race, sexual orientation, gender identity or other status, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The department will also investigate allegations that SCI Cresson provided inadequate mental health care to prisoners who have mental illness, failed to adequately protect such prisoners from harm, and subjected them to excessively prolonged periods of isolation, in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
SCI Pittsburgh is about 2 miles from my home, near Woods Run. SCI Cresson is in Cambria County.
The investigation at Woods Run will focus on allegations that the prison failed to protect prisoners from attacks and sexual assaults by other prisoners as well as correctional officers, the department’s Civil Rights Division announced on Thursday in a news release. Agency spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa didn’t return calls for comment.
The agency didn’t say how long the investigations may take but said they are separate from any federal criminal investigation of prison officials.
The Justice Department’s civil investigations look at an institution’s policies and practices, said Susan Bensinger, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections. She said federal officials notified the state about the investigations either late Wednesday or yesterday morning, shortly before the public announcement.
“We will fully cooperate,” she said.
Bensinger said she wasn’t aware of any prior Justice Department investigation of a jail or prison in Pennsylvania, and its website listing previous cases doesn’t show such an investigation in at least the last 15 years.
One SCI-Pittsburgh guard, Harry F. Nicoletti, 59, of Coraopolis is facing nearly 100 state charges of sexual assault, indecent assault, solicitation, terroristic threats and related charges from alleged attacks on more than 20 inmates over two years. Six other guards also face state charges related to prisoner abuse.
That’s a lot of overlooking.
Of course, these are horrific allegations regardless of the crimes of the victims. As to why a federal body is investigating based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, please read here on the DOJ’s commitment to apply a heightened degree of scrutiny to these identified as-of-yet protected classes. Now applying a heightened level of scruntiny based on these factors doesn’t necessarily mean they rise to the degree necessary to violate existing law. And this is a policy based on precedent, not federal protections for these classes.
From a March article in Metro Weekly:
DOJ has established that it will apply heightened scrutiny not only to federal laws but also to state or local government laws or practices that discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity – and that it will investigate, and could potentially prosecute, those claims when it deems warranted.
Looking at the scope and breadth of the report, as well as the underlying conclusions that allowed for the investigation, Minter* said, ”I think that what we’re finally seeing is the full integration of LGBT issues into the Constitution, and DOJ is following through on their conclusion that discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is subject to heightened scrutiny.”
*Shannon Minter of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
We’ll stay on top of this story as it unfolds. Sexually assaulting prisoners, turning a blind eye and denying them appropriate mental health treatment is a menace to everyone.