Department of Corrections needs to improve focus on safety for officers
Recent headlines across the commonwealth trumpeted a drop in state prison population. That has certainly earned Pennsylvania positive reviews from many outside the system, but for those of us on the inside, we see a great deal of work that remains to improve the safety for corrections officers and countless employees.
To be sure, the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, the Wolf administration’s Department of Corrections and the Legislature have made improvements in this area. Working together, we now have a mandatory lockdown policy, safer postal service, mandatory body scanners and increased visiting-room staff. These steps were critical. For example, by having the postal service handled by a third party, Pennsylvania is helping to prevent officers from becoming sick from contraband being sent by mail.
Further steps can be taken immediately by the department. It has been nearly a year since Pennsylvania Corrections officer Sgt. Mark J. Baserman was brutally killed in the line of duty after a surprise attack at SCI-Somerset. Sgt. Baserman was killed with a blow to the head by an inmate wearing heavy-soled Timberland boots. While Timberlands have now been outlawed in our prisons, the department still provides free work boots to inmates. These boots are just as dangerous, and as we have seen, they have been weaponized. There is no requirement that an inmate be given boots. It is time to remove them permanently.
All officers should also be provided radios with “man-down” technology. This technology senses motion, and if the user doesn’t move within a set amount of time, the device alarms fellow officers in real-time. When an officer is attacked, such technology could save their lives. Federal corrections officer Eric Williams was stabbed by an inmate; he was down for 10 minutes before anyone knew. Williams died from his injuries in 2013.
As the new 2019-20 legislative session dawns, the General Assembly can take more steps to ensure we have safe state prisons.
Let’s provide officers with Tasers. Pepper spray was a good start a few years ago, but it’s clear officers are outnumbered and have few options to defend themselves against some of our commonwealth’s most violent criminals.
Staffing must be examined closely. A study should be done that evaluates the department’s deployment of officers and looks at new policies to increase safety. Too often, officers find themselves on duty alone, covering an entire prison block. If it’s one thing inmates understand — it’s a numbers advantage.
Also, there is simply too much gray area and subjectivity when it comes to inmates assaulting officers. Legislation should be passed that clearly defines inmate assault misconduct to ensure there is a lower threshold for an assault. Inmates should know — and DOC should support — harsher penalties for inmates that injure officers.
The department has taken aggressive measures to interdict and curtail the introduction of contraband, which has led to an increase of drugs being found, but all too often what should be a triumphant occasion that shows the system can and does work is wasted. Hearing examiners simply won’t do the right thing and punish these people who break the laws inside our system. These men and women need to be charged by the local district attorneys through the state police.
Further steps would include items that are common sense and should already be in practice: eliminate parole eligibility for inmates convicted of staff assault; add time to the sentence of an inmate convicted of assault on staff; and restrict an inmate’s access to the commissary if they are convicted of assault on staff. Currently, officers are not permitted to testify at parole hearings. The board should hear from those who witness the behaviors of inmates on a day-to-day basis.
Our state prison system has come a long way over the last several years by working together. It’s time to work together again because the job is never finished. The safety of corrections officers and state prison employees must remain a critical priority in Pennsylvania.
Jason Bloom is the president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association.