Luzerne County officials are investigating the hospitalization of a prison inmate for a serious cut above his right ear down into his neck.
The injury occurred Saturday, county interim Correctional Services Division Head James Larson said Wednesday.
The inmate stayed at Wilkes-Barre General Hospital Saturday night and returned to the county prison on Water Street in Wilkes-Barre Sunday, where he will remain in isolation until an investigation is completed, Larson said.
Larson declined to identify the inmate, citing the pending investigation.
The inmate, who was lodged in the maximum security block, continues to maintain he cut himself when he fell off the top metal bunk bed in his cell, Larson said.
Prison officials suspect the man was assaulted by another inmate, said Larson, refusing to divulge specifics about that hunch.
“We haven’t made a determination as to whether or not he was stabbed or cut or if he did it to himself. We have our theories as to what actually occurred, but that’s to be determined by the investigation,” Larson said.
Following protocol, prison officials reported the matter to the county District Attorney’s Office, he said.
The prison administration also has been conducting interviews and collecting evidence that will be turned over to a detective, he said.
“If this inmate was assaulted and we determine who was the culprit, then we will charge them,” Larson said.
County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis said potential assault reports are treated as a serious matter, including those involving inmates.
“We will be handling this like any other case,” Salavantis said.
Larson said suspected prison assaults have been reported to the District Attorney’s Office before, but this case is unusual due to the seriousness of the injury.
A “thorough shakedown” was conducted, but no shank or other weapon was discovered, he said.
“If we thought there was a threat to the corrections officers, we would have let them know,” he said.
County prison officials have warned that the atmosphere of the Water Street facility has markedly changed because an increasing number of inmates are involved in serious crimes and feuds among competing gang members. A rise in inmates wrestling with drug addiction and mental health issues adds to the problem, they said.
“What’s happening now, is we have a more serious, violent inmate for the most part in the main jail,” Larson said in 2014. “The change is just unbelievable, as is the total turnaround in the last couple of years in this valley.”
Prison officials and guards try to monitor brewing problems. A federal standard requires prisons to remove an inmate from a potential dangerous situation if they have suspicions a fight or assault may occur, Larson said.
However, options to separate rivals or conspiring allies are limited in the overcrowded complex, officials have said.
The prison was designed to hold 505 inmates and typically has been at or exceeding capacity in recent years. The inmate count temporarily was down to 484 Wednesday afternoon due to the transport of some inmates to the state prison system, but Larson predicted a new batch of arrivals would soon pump up the count.
Eight female inmates must be housed in another county because only one floor is available for up to 90 women at the Water Street prison, he said.
The nearby minimal offender’s building, which can house inmates with nonviolent offenses, has been near its maximum capacity of 233.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.