HARRISBURG – The union representing state corrections officers on Wednesday called on the Department of Corrections to take action to better protect those working in the state prison system.
Union officials and lawmakers said that state efforts to reduce the prison population by offering probation more quickly to more inmates are making prisons less safe. Larry Blackwell, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, said prisoners are deterred from misbehaving or acting violently in prison because the repercussions handed down against them are inadequate.
“The level of violence is increasing,” he said.
That includes an attack by an inmate in SCI Greene who stabbed a corrections officer 35 times in January, Blackwell said. The corrections officer survived that attack. The most recent fatal attack against a state prison employee was in February 2018 when Sgt. Mark Baserman was killed while working at SCI Somerset.
Wednesday, Baserman’s widow Rebecca Lynn Yeager-Baserman said the state has done little to help her since her husband’s death.
During the fatal attack, Baserman was kicked by the inmate, who was wearing heavy work boots. After the killing, the state barred inmates from having heavy work boots.
But the state’s not helped Baserman’s family, she said. She is still waiting for the death benefits owed her due to her husband’s killing in the line of duty, she said. Pennsylvania’s Emergency and Law Enforcement Personnel Death Benefits Act provides for a one-time payment of death benefits to the surviving spouse of first responders and law enforcement officers killed in the performance of their duties. In 2018, that benefit payment was $138,420.71, according to the Department of General Services.
Blackwell said the union doesn’t think the Department of Corrections has done enough to make prisons safer since Baserman’s death.
“We thought the department would take the steps to keep our officers safe. We’re still waiting,” he said.
In testimony to the Senate appropriations committee, Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said the prisons are dealing with “an increasingly violent population.”
But prison officials told senators that inmates who attack staff are sanctioned and Wetzel said that contrary to the union’s assertions, attacks on staff have gone down.
“We have taken steps to reduce the violence in prison by responding quickly and acutely to incidents, likely contributing to the reduction in assaults on staff,” according to Wetzel’s testimony. “We have also maintained our increased focus on drug interdiction.”
State Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill County, said the amount of violence behind bars in Pennsylvania is unacceptable.
“The leadership of the Department of Corrections must protect its officers,” he said. “We have to stop these terrible attacks.”
State Rep. Carl Metzgar, R-Somerset County, said the Corrections Department policies have failed to improve safety within the prisons. Metzgar authored legislation that would ensure that inmates get additional time if they are charged with assaulting a corrections officer.
House Bill 257 would mandate that if an inmate is convicted of attacking a staff member, the sentence must follow the sentence the inmate is already serving. The legislation is intended to bar prosecutors from agreeing to plea deals that allow inmates to plead guilty without adding time to their sentences.
The measure passed the state House in December. It has not yet moved in the state Senate.