05 October 2011

New charges shed light on prison abuse

By Jenna Smith, Juris Blogger
Sodomy. Rape. Hate. Shanks. These are all of the words that come to mind when I think of the HBO series, Oz. Oz is about a fictional group of prisoners in Oswald State Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison, whose location is unknown for the entirety of the series. The plot centers on the prisoners housed in “Emerald City,” nicknamed “Em City” by the prisoners. The inmates are comprised of different groups: the “Homeboys” (the African Americans), the Muslims, the “Wiseguys” (the Italians), the Latinos, the Irish, the Aryans, the Bikers, the Gays, etc. – the list goes on. The show follows the struggles these inmates face while in prison, highlighting the social and racial tension between the different groups. The inmates fight amongst themselves over anything and everything: the illicit drug trade they run, the kitchen duties they are assigned, which new inmate will suffer the fate of being sodomized his first night in confinement, so forth and so on. While all of this is going on, the corrections officers turn a blind eye, or worse, become involved. Some of the officers help to run the drug trade; others help to set up prisoner-on-prisoner violence and killings; others have wanted and unwanted sexual relationships with the inmates. I am a big fan of this series and I truly feel it provides a lot of insight into the dynamics of our country’s prison system. However, I thought while watching the show, many of the events that take place are so overly dramatized and unrealistic. A corrections officer surely could never involve his or herself in such unsavory and illegal behavior?

This past summer, I received the opportunity to visit and tour a county jail as part of my internship. I was told to “cover up” – this meant to wear pants and no revealing clothing. I didn’t think that this was such an odd request until what came after. We were told to expect the catcalls and degradations coming from the inmates, but we were told that such conduct could come from some of the prison guards as well. This puzzled me. Weren’t corrections officers there to protect us? Perhaps I’m na├»ve, but I did not think this was possible. My trip to the county jail was pleasant, informative, and every member of the staff was welcoming and friendly. I suppose I did not understand what was meant until I read an article on CNN a few months later entitled, Authorities say prison guard charged with sexually abusing inmates. My eyes skimmed the article and there it was: Allegheny County, State Criminal Institution at Pittsburgh.

Photo by Michael Henninger, Post-Gazette
I couldn't believe it. A state prison in Pittsburgh had corrections officers under investigation for sexually abusing inmates. I quickly went to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette's website and searched the topic. A September 22, 2011 article by Rich Lord, entitled Lawsuit alleges SCI Pittsburgh guards sexually abused inmates, details the following: Corrections Officer Harry Nicoletti, Jr., age 59, faces ninety-two counts of institutional sexual assault, official oppression, terroristic threats, and simple assault.

Nicoletti, as well as other guards, are said to have targeted men charged with sex crimes, especially those against children. They also targeted homosexuals and transgendered individuals. Some former inmates allege the following: Nicoletti raped, slapped, and bribed one inmate and then exposed his genitalia to that inmate; Nicoletti rewarded one inmate for following orders to assault fifteen other inmates; one inmate was told to let other inmates fondle his genitalia and if he did not do so, he would be abused further; Nicoletti gave drugs to an inmate that were not prescribed to him; a transgender inmate alleged that Nicoletti raped him orally and anally. Not heinous enough for you? A former inmate stated that corrections officers ordered inmates to defecate, urinate, and place other bodily fluids into inmates’ food. Another former inmate alleged that he was given three choices: be anally raped, perform oral sex, or touch the officer’s genitals.

Nicoletti is not the only guard being accused of these acts; others are in the line of fire as well. A number of other officers are alleged to have participated in the activities with Nicoletti and higher positioned employees are accused of ignoring the activities of these officers. The initial hearing for Nicoletti is set for October 7th, 2011.

I find this all to be particularly disturbing. I am sure that some people are of the line of thought that go along the way of thinking, “Well if these inmates raped and abused others, like children, they deserve what Nicoletti and the other guards did to them.” I find it very hard to sympathize with those who hurt children, but this crosses the line. Prisons and jails are supposed to be places where the convicted can reform, correct their behavior, and pay back society for the harm they have caused. How can inmates do this when they are in constant fear of being abused sexually and physically by individuals of authority? Likewise, I highly doubt that “coercion” and “abuse of power” are in the job description for corrections officer.

In 2003, the Prison Rape Elimination Act was signed into law by George W. Bush. It requires the Bureau of Justice Statistics to carry out a yearly statistical review of prison rape. Under the auspices of this Act, the Bureau of Justice Statistics for the Department of Justice reported in 2007 that the prison population was around 1.6 million and in one year alone, 70,000 prisoners reported to have been sexually abused. Imagine the number of prisoners that did not report because of fear and intimidation. Likewise, one in 20 prisoners report being sexually abused. These statistics are alarming. You can read more about these statistics and male rape in prisons here. Although the Act aims to shed light into sexual victimization in prisons, I wonder if it is all the U.S. government can do now to address this problem. From the story surrounding the aforementioned Pittsburgh corrections officer, it is clear that these guards are not doing their jobs. It seems clear to me that those in Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections are just not doing enough to combat the atrocities that are being committed in our state’s prisons.

The sexual and physical abuse put forth in the show Oz provides viewers with entertainment. But the show Oz isn’t just entertainment. It speaks the truth of the state of the prison system in the United States. This system is filled with abuse of all sorts – physical, sexual, power, etc. Surprisingly, abuse is coming from corrections officers – the ones who are supposed to prevent such heinous acts from occurring. I should say not all corrections officers are bad people; many of them are good, law-abiding citizens. But the ones who are abusing their power are giving a bad name not only to their fellow officers but state employment and the prison system in general.

A prison sentence to a guilty defendant is supposed to provide justice to the victims of crimes. However, with such flagrant acts of abuse occurring within prison walls, the system is turning those it’s supposed to correct and rehabilitate into victims. The prison system, much like inmates, must be reformed. There are a lot bad people behind bars, but I think there are just as many bad people on the outside.

Jenna Smith is a second year student at Duquesne University School of Law. She is currently a judicial extern in the Allegheny Court of Common Pleas, Civil Division and a student representative for Kaplan PMBR. Jenna earned her undergraduate degrees from the Pennsylvania State University, with majors in International Politics, Latin American Studies, and History, and minors in Spanish and Global Security. She will graduate from Duquesne University School of Law in 2013, and can be reached at smithj12@duq.edu.