WILKES-BARRE — The use of force to subdue or restrain inmates is on the rise at the Luzerne County prison on Water Street, and officials pin the blame largely on an increase in confrontational and aggressive inmates.
In 2015, the county prison had 90 cases of the use of force and/or restraints — a 91 percent increase from the prior year’s 47 cases, according to a review of annual county prison reports released by the state Department of Corrections.
The county reported 13 cases of force and/or restraints in 2013 and 56 in 2012, the reports show.
In addition to physical force, county correctional officers have deployed handcuffs, shackles, restraint chairs, chemical agents and stun devices, the reports say.
County prison officials have publicly warned for years that the aging and usually overcrowded facility’s atmosphere has markedly changed because more inmates are involved in serious crimes, feuding with competing gang members under the same roof and suffering from mental health issues and the effects of drug withdrawal, mainly heroin.
“We have more violence on the part of inmates,” said Mark Rockovich, a veteran county prison worker who took over as county correctional services division head on July 18, the same day a corrections officer and inmate crashed through a fifth-floor elevator to their deaths during an exchange.
The July 18 incident is an example of why force can become necessary inside the prison’s walls, officials say.
Upset he had to walk up a flight of stairs instead of riding in the elevator after exercising, inmate Timothy Darnell Gilliam Jr., 27, started a “heated discussion” with correctional officer Kristopher D. Moules, 25, county District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis has said.
Moules advised Gilliam to exit the cell block into the hallway, where Gilliam had a verbal confrontation with Moules and a corrections officer in a locked control room, according to the findings of the DA’s criminal investigation.
As the confrontation escalated, the control room officer ordered that Gilliam be handcuffed.
However, Gilliam started a physical altercation with Moules as the corrections officer tried to handcuff him, investigators said. Before Moules could get the handcuffs on, Gilliam pulled Moules backwards toward the elevator and hit the elevator door, which swung out at the base, according to investigators. Both men fell 59 feet and 1 inch down an elevator shaft to their deaths.
Salavantis concluded Moules responded appropriately by asking Gilliam to step away from the 37 other inmates on the block to attempt to resolve the grievance and prevent the situation from escalating.
Types of force
State law requires county prisons to report the number of times force and restraints are used beyond the routine moving, escorting and transport of inmates.
This reporting mandate evolved from the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment,” which has been legally interpreted to allow excessive force when necessary in a good-faith effort to keep or restore discipline.
Restraint chairs are the method most frequently deployed at the county prison and were used in 61 of the 90 use-of-force cases last year, the statistics show.
The chairs, which harness an inmate in a seat, were used between 41 and 46 times annually at the prison from 2012 through 2014.
County Deputy Warden James Larson had described a situation involving the chairs in May, saying two inmates had to be placed in restraint chairs while their cells were checked because they had refused to comply with repeated orders to remove coverings from windows that allow officers to see inside their cells, in part to prevent suicide attempts.
The two inmates in that case were in single-occupancy cells reserved for prisoners caught committing an assault or other serious misbehavior behind bars. One of these inmates had mental health issues, and the other had acted out, Larson said at the time.
Most county inmates are allowed to spend most of their waking hours outside their cells on their block because the prison generally can’t keep them on restricted lockup unless they’ve engaged in misconduct, officials said. Segregated sections are set up for certain inmates who can’t be around the general population, including sex offenders, juveniles sentenced as adults, inmates on suicide or mental health watch and those who were abused or injured by other inmates.
Inmates are checked by medical staff when they are in restraint chairs to ensure there are no problems with restricted circulation or other health issues, Rockovich said.
Rockovich said strict protocol and training are required for all use of force and restraints.
Physical force — along with or without restraints — was documented in 56 of the 90 cases last year, the statistics show.
A stun device was used twice last year and three times in 2013 but not in the other years, records show.
County correctional officers relied on a non-lethal chemical agent, commonly known as pepper spray, to subdue inmates 10 times last year and eight or nine times annually from 2012 through 2014, records show.
The officers have access to pepper spray but don’t carry it on them at all times, Rockovich said.
The 2013 death of corrections officer and Nanticoke native Eric Williams inside U.S. Penitentiary Canaan in Wayne County sparked the passage this year of a federal law named after Williams that allows federal corrections officers to carry pepper spray. Prosecutors alleged that convicted killer Jessie Con-ui kicked Williams down a flight of steps, pinned him to the floor and stabbed him over 200 times.
Pennsylvania legislators are considering a similar law requiring the state Department of Corrections to provide pepper spray to all corrections officers in medium- and high-security state prisons.
State Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski , D-Wilkes-Barre, said he would sponsor legislation imposing a similar requirement for county prison corrections officers if they express an interest in such a request. He said some corrections officer have told him increased staffing would be more beneficial because inmates could align and attempt to seize pepper spray for use as a weapon against corrections officers.
Rockovich said he’s willing to explore arming all corrections officers with pepper spray
“It needs to be looked at very carefully. Pepper spray does subdue people, but you have to prevent inmates on a block from grabbing the spray,” he said.
The increase in the use of force and restraints isn’t limited to Luzerne County’s prison.
The combined total of such cases at all county prisons statewide has steadily risen from 2,894 in 2012 to 4,028 last year, the statistics show.
Kevin Rousset, second vice president of the Pennsylvania County Corrections Association, said the increase stems partially from a rise in inmates with mental health illnesses at many county prisons.
“A lot of times force is used to restore order to a situation, but it’s also needed to protect inmates from self-injurious behavior,” Rousset said, describing situations where inmates bang their heads against a wall or vow to commit suicide.
The association’s members across the state regularly analyze and discuss use-of-force/restraint cases in an attempt to reduce the number of cases and prevent litigation by inmates, said Rousset, superintendent of the Bucks County Community Corrections Centers.
Rockovich said the use of force and restraints must be monitored and scrutinized at the county prison, but he does not expect a decrease in the 2016 statistics.
Some don’t realize county prisons house offenders charged with murders and other serious crimes that will send them to state prisons after they are sentenced, he said.
Prison workers often have no idea which inmates are battling mental health, behavioral and addiction issues — information they document before inmates are sentenced and transferred to the state prison system.
“When they come in the door, we know nothing about them if they haven’t been here before, other than what’s on their rap sheet,” Rockovich said.
Salavantis said the burden of identifying anger issues and other behavioral problems falls on county prisons.
“It can be more dangerous working in a county prison than a state one,” Salavantis said.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.