Politicians respond to prison violence

Bill pertaining to corrections officers unanimously passes the Pennsylvania House

In July 2019, Keith Burley of New Castle, Pennsylvania violently stabbed an 8-year-old child to death as the victim’s brother watched in horror.

Burley was recently given parole before the homicide took place.

While behind bars, Burley was known for having terrible behavior while incarcerated among corrections officers.

This did not matter, according to Nate Regotti, chief of staff for Rep. Pam Snyder, who shared this story. Corrections officers in Pennsylvania were unable to give testimony of his misbehavior during his parole hearing, despite his behavior.

“A terrible, God-awful story,” Regotti said. “No one ever asked the corrections officers that watched him every single day if he’s ready to be released; and we think it’s important that the parole board knows how these guys are inside the jail.”

In the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, House Bill 44 plans on “providing for corrections officer statement, testimony and participation in [parole] hearing,” amending Title 61 of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes.

Rep. Pam Snyder of District 50 was the prime sponsor for this bill. The bill unanimously passed the Pennsylvania House 194-0. House Bill 44 now sits in the Pennsylvania Senate judiciary committee, awaiting Senate approval.

“Representative Snyder is all for the fair treatment of inmates, but at the same time, they’re not on vacation,” Regotti said. “Giving them too much leeway has put corrections officers in SCI-Greene in serious danger.”

Regotti describes this bill as benefiting both the inmates and prison workers. The inmates will be rewarded for good behavior during their prison time, while the prison workers will be able to hold the inmates accountable with their testimony.

According to the corresponding memorandum, an incident at SCI-Mahanoy three years ago resulted in a prisoner slashing a guard’s throat. Last year, the same prisoner tried to slash another guard’s throat at SCI-Somerset. In February 2018, also at SCI-Somerset, Sgt. Mark Baserman was killed by a prisoner with a history of violence.

There were up to 466 staff assaults in 2018, according to the memorandum.

Snyder’s efforts to make prisons a safer place started back in 2016 with House Bill 2084, which provided oleoresin capsicum spray, commonly known as pepper spray, to corrections officers.

House Bill 44 was part of a package proposed by Snyder with House Bill 45 and 46. House Bill 45 would allow corrections officers at state institutions to carry tasers. House Bill 46 will ensure that no guard is left alone while on duty. These two have yet to pass the Pennsylvania House.

“Our corrections officers have a dangerous but vital job to do, and I’m extremely pleased House Bill 44 is moving forward,” Snyder said in a recent news release. “No one better understands the behavior of inmates than corrections officers who are patrolling the halls of the facility each day, and their voice must be heard when parole hearings are taking place, as they know firsthand if an inmate should be considered for parole.”

Regotti said Snyder visits the prisons multiple times a year to observe what corrections officers are experiencing and hearing directly from them.

“That’s the most important thing; knowing what these guys need. We don’t pretend to know everything. We don’t pretend to think that we know better than them,” Regotti said. “We listen to what they have to say, and anything that we introduce comes from the men and women inside that jail … We can’t change anything in there without hearing from them.”

Last Friday at the Jefferson Fire Hall, the Corrections Officers Association set up a meeting with Snyder and two other senators to discuss what the politicians can do to make Pennsylvania prisons safer.