The Times-Tribune

Prison needs independen­t oversight


Whatever the outcome of civil lawsuits and criminal investigat­ions regarding the Lackawanna County Prison, it’s already clear that the institutio­n’s governance has to be restructur­ed. The current prison board, as structured according to state law, can’t get out of its own way.

Recently the board appointed attorney Amil Minora to examine charges in a federal lawsuit filed by four women, former inmates who claim that they had been sexually assaulted by prison staff. Monday, county Judge Vito Geroulo said Mr. Minora’s work will be limited to the suit’s claims against Warden Tim Betti. Judge Geroulo said the board, through Mr. Minora, will not attempt to determine the veracity of charges against other prison staff because the county district attorney’s is investigat­ing the matter.

But District Attorney Shane Scanlon himself is a member of the board. The public already has little reason to have any confidence in the board. An investigat­ion conducted by a board member — which would be considered an obvious conflict of interest in almost any other context — is not the way to restore public trust.

This is a long-standing problem. Former District Attorney Andrew Jarbola, now a county judge, once expressed his reluctance to serve on the board — due to the very sort of conflict now facing Mr. Scanlon — but that he had no choice as a legally designated member.

“... There is absolutely no question that I have a conflict of interest serving on the prison board. The voters of Lackawanna County elected me to serve as their district attorney, which I have been honored to do over the last 12 years. Those same citizens did not elect me to serve on the prison board,” Judge Jarbola wrote in an Oct. 16, 2011, letter to this newspaper. He responded to an editorial lamenting his conflict of interest in investigat­ing a violent crime at the prison.

And the district attorney’s conflict is not the only one. Judge Geroulo’s presence on the board means not only that he would have to recuse himself from hearing matters in court that originate in the prison, but the entire county bench might have to do so as well. The prison board also includes the sheriff, who has a major role in prison operations, the commission­ers and several county financial officers.

Decades of scandal demonstrat­e that the current governance structure at the prison is a failure. But it is a failure mandated by archaic state law. Sen. John Blake, state Reps. Sid Michaels Kavulich and Marty Flynn, and state Rep.-elect Kevin Haggerty should work to amend state law to eliminate inherent conflicts of interest in favor of independen­t oversight.

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