Abu Ghraib on the Allegheny?

| Wed Sep. 28, 2011 5:42 PM EDT

A story out of Pennsylvania reveals the extreme abuse to which some U.S. prisoners are subjected. Yesterday, a suspended prison guard from the State Correctional Institution (SCI)-Pittsburgh was arrested on charges that he sexually or physically assaulted more than 20 inmates–and the district attorney has signaled that there are more arrests to come. As the AP reports:

The 92 criminal charges filed Tuesday include several counts each of institutional sexual assault, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, and official oppression — which amounts to covering up the crimes or allegedly threatening others to do so. The criminal charges mirror allegations contained against [corrections officer Harry] Nicoletti and officials at the state prison in Pittsburgh in two civil rights lawsuits filed by inmates in recent months…

The lawsuits, one filed in 2010 and another on behalf of an anonymous inmate last week, allege the systematic abuse of inmates — especially those convicted of child sex-crimes, or believed to be homosexual —by Nicoletti and other inmates at his direction. The lawsuits say the abuse occurred over the past two years in the prison’s F Block, a reception area where new prisoners are housed for a few days for medical testing and to receive other supplies before they’re moved to permanent cells.

Among other things, Nicoletti is charged with raping inmates, threatening them with other sexual acts, and with having inmates contaminate the food and bedding of his alleged targets with urine and other bodily fluids.

According to the criminal complaint, one of Nicoletti’s victims was a transsexual male who developed female breasts due to hormone treatments. Nicoletti fondled that inmate before raping him, while shouting racial and sexual epithets, including calling him a “weird freaky monkey,” the complaint said.

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The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections says it is shocked and appalled. But while Nicoletti’s alleged conduct may represent the extreme, it is not the first allegation of abuse from the prison. The AP notes: “In April, corrections officials suspended eight guards at the prison, including Nicoletti, and four top prison officials were removed and have since left the department, although officials have declined to say whether they were fired or resigned.” Today, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports that “Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said this morning that at least 11 other Department of Corrections employees will be charged after a wide-ranging investigation into sexual and physical abuse at SCI Pittsburgh.”

Pittsburgh City Paper reported last week that one of the inmate lawsuits, filed in July by transgender prisoner Rodger Williams, contains “the assertion that [Nicoletti's] abuse ‘occurred with the full knowledge of the superintendent and other high ranking staff at … SCI-Pittsburgh.’ Williams’ lawsuit names as defendant former SCI-Pittsburgh superintendent Melvin Lockett and other prison administrators…In May, the DOC replaced Lockett and three other high-ranking officials at the prison. All three were named in Williams’ lawsuit; none are currently employed by the DOC. At the time, DOC press secretary Susan McNaughton would neither confirm nor deny to CP that the staffing changes had anything to do with the suspensions or grand-jury investigation.”

According to the Pittsburgh-based Human Rights Coalition, which tracks abuse in Pennsylvania’s prisons, the second inmate lawsuit, just filed on behalf an anonymous prisoner at SCI Pittsburgh, “depicts a situation of intimidation, coercion, and physical assault wielded against inmates who tried to refuse the guards or to expose the abuse. Beatings, filing of false charges against inmates, and retaliatory time in solitary confinement were common…All of this transpired with the full knowledge and inaction of the prison management... John Doe’s parents made repeated calls to the DOC and the Commonwealth while their son was incarcerated at SCI Pittsburgh, to no avail.”

Prisoner abuse is not limited to SCI-Pittsburgh. Earlier reports by the Human Rights Coalition, based on extensive inmate testimony as well as prison records, show a pattern of what the group calls “institutionalized cruelty” in the solitary confinement “Restricted Housing Units” at SCI-Dallas, SCI-Huntingdon, and throughout the Pennsylvania prison system.

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