Make state pris­ons safer

The Boyertown Area Times - - OPINION - Ja­son Bloom is pres­i­dent of the Penn­syl­va­nia State Corrections Of­fi­cers As­so­ci­a­tion.

The Penn­syl­va­nia State Corrections Of­fi­cers As­so­ci­a­tion has al­ways made the safety and se­cu­rity of Corrections Of­fi­cers our top pri­or­ity.

That’s why it was so heart wrench­ing to lose one of our own when a hero, Sgt. Mark Baser­man, was mur­dered at SCI-Som­er­set by an in­mate with a his­tory of vi­o­lence in­side and out­side of the in­sti­tu­tion.

The killing of a hero made lo­cal, state and na­tional head­lines. It was a dark day. The pain and anger felt by so many of Sgt. Baser­man’s broth­ers and sis­ters at SCI-Som­er­set is still very raw.

But the vi­o­lence didn’t end there, un­for­tu­nately. Most didn’t no­tice be­cause it just didn’t make na­tional head­lines.

Only a few days later, two more of our corrections of­fi­cers were in­jured in an at­tack by an in­mate at SCI-Coal Town­ship, who had a his­tory of vi­o­lence in mul­ti­ple state fa­cil­i­ties.

To be clear, when corrections of­fi­cers sign up for this job, we cer­tainly know it comes with se­ri­ous risks.

The po­ten­tial for vi­o­lence is al­ways a sec­ond away, and the meth­ods for ex­e­cut­ing that vi­o­lence are bru­tal. As we al­ways say, we pa­trol the tough­est jobs in the state.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t take steps right now to make state pris­ons more safe for the thou­sands of men and women who work there ev­ery­day.

That will re­quire mul­ti­ple stake­hold­ers to work to­gether. For­tu­nately, that track record al­ready ex­ists in our com­mon­wealth.

Two years ago, work­ing to­gether with the Penn­syl­va­nia Gen­eral As­sem­bly, state Rep. Pam Sny­der (D-Greene) and the Wolf ad­min­is­tra­tion, the PSCOA ad­vo­cated for, and re­ceived the ap­proval of, the abil­ity of all corrections of­fi­cers to carry pep­per spray.

Rep. Sny­der’s leg­is­la­tion was mod­eled af­ter a fed­eral law in re­sponse to the death of a corrections of­fi­cer at United States Pen­i­ten­tiary — Canaan in north­east­ern Penn­syl­va­nia.

The of­fi­cer was work­ing alone, armed only with a flash­light, hand­cuffs and a ra­dio. He was stabbed 130 times.

Given the vi­o­lent record of so many in­mates, this safety im­prove­ment can­not be over­stated and is a tes­ta­ment to peo­ple work­ing to­gether for the com­mon good.

So, where do we go from here?

The PSCOA be­lieves a task force should be formed to iden­tify and pur­sue new meth­ods to im­prove prison safety for all em­ploy­ees. It would in­clude mem­bers of the De­part­ment of Corrections, Gen­eral As­sem­bly, law en­force­ment and the PSCOA.

Here are four ideas we would im­me­di­ately bring to the ta­ble for con­sid­er­a­tion:

1. Re-eval­u­ate all staffing and safety stan­dards: We must take a fresh look at how these staffing and stan­dards are ap­plied. Im­prove­ments can al­ways be made — and the PSCOA should be at the ta­ble since our mem­bers are on the front lines ev­ery day.

2. Stan­dard­iza­tion of the Re­stricted Housing Unit (RHU) sys­tem: Cur­rent reg­u­la­tions leave too much to in­ter­pre­ta­tion. That can lead to mis­takes that re­lease vi­o­lent in­mates back into the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion too soon. We must have a rigid sys­tem that makes of­fi­cer safety the top pri­or­ity — not in­mates.

3. Pros­e­cu­tion of all in­mates who as­sault corrections of­fi­cers: Right now, this pol­icy is set by 67 dif­fer­ent district at­tor­neys. While many do pros­e­cute vi­o­lent in­mates, some do not.

That sends a clear, hor­ri­ble mes­sage to in­mates that they can do any­thing they want with­out fear of pun­ish­ment. That is in­ex­cus­able and must end.

4. Con­fis­cate dan­ger­ous items that are be­ing pro­vided to in­mates: Metal locks, 14inch knit­ting nee­dles and other items must be re­moved from prison com­mis­saries and in­mate cells. It makes no sense for in­mates to have locks in their cells.

Not only can they hide items — but those locks can also be used as weapons. Knit­ting nee­dles can ob­vi­ously be used as weapons. The com­mis­sary list re­quires a full re-eval­u­a­tion.

We think these ideas are com­mon sense ap­proaches that will make our state pris­ons safer for the peo­ple who work there.

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