The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Editorials

June 12, 2013

Correcting our corrections facilities | Malfeasance is alarming

JOHNSTOWN — The recent news out of two prisons and a jail in our area is disturbing.

It seems as though our correctional institutions are in need of, well, some corrections.

A report from the Department of Justice revealed that officials at the State Correctional Institution at Cresson violated the rights of mentally ill inmates by misusing solitary confinement. The prison, which is in the process of closing, kept some inmates isolated in their cells up to 23 hours a day. The practice caused mental strain, depression, psychosis, self-mutilation and suicide, the investigation found.

We realize that there is a fine line that prison officials must walk between keeping potentially dangerous criminals away from others whom they might harm and doing real mental damage to inmates by keeping them isolated for long periods of time.

Unfortunately, it sounds like the psychological staff at Cresson was too often on the wrong side of that line. It was so bad that employees contacted the Department of Justice on a number of occasions to blow the whistle on the dangerous policies being put into place in Cresson.

Part of the problem might stem from the fact that Pennsylvania had 25 state hospitals and seven state prisons a generation ago; those numbers have now flipped, with just a handful of state hospitals and 25 state prisons.

As reporter John Finnerty revealed more and more details about what had happened in Cresson, more troubling reports came out of correctional facilities in Somerset and Indiana counties.

Ronald E. Lensbouer, a chief county corrections officer at Somerset County Jail, has been charged with indecent assault and harassment for his alleged workplace actions. The 44-year-old Friedens man is accused of having inappropriate contact with two female officers over an 18-month period. He allegedly fondled the women while he was their supervising officer.

Somerset County Commissioner Joe Betta praised the women for having the courage to step forward about the incidents. He also wants an internal review into prison operations.

“It’s our job to make sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen – and shame on us, we haven’t done that,” he said.

We agree with Betta that much more needs to be done to properly oversee our correctional facilities. That’s evident from the story out of SCI-Pine Grove in White Township, Indiana County.

Alicia J. Welborn of Johnstown allegedly engaged in sexual acts with an inmate while she was working as a special education instructor at the prison. Welborn allegedly sent the inmate pornographic letters and photos by disguising them to look like they were from Johnstown attorney Art McQuillan.

It is just another alarming example of how our correctional system is failing those it is supposed to be helping. Employees at jails and prisons are in positions of authority and cannot abuse that power. If our jails and prisons are trying to fulfill the noble deed of rehabilitating criminals instead of just detaining them, our administrators must do a better job. Having potential criminals on the other side of the bars will not help anyone.

 

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