Many call for action as investigation continues into Rockview sexual assault

mcarroll@centredaily.comOctober 13, 2013 

Rockview state prison officials say they are still investigating the circumstances that allowed an inmate to corner a female clerk alone in her office, brutally choke and rape her for nearly a half hour, and leave her for dead.

Nearly three months after the July 25 assault, politicians and others say they are still waiting for answers and action.

Prison spokesman Jeffrey Rackovan said changes have already been made at the facility, and at other prisons across the state, that will better protect clerical employees and perhaps prevent another assault like this one from happening again.

State police last week charged Omar Best, 36, with attacking the 24-year-old woman, who had been employed at Rockview for less than a month and was not supposed to have direct contact with inmates.

Despite this, and the fact that the woman had previously complained about Best’s behavior, the inmate was able to gain access to her alone for 27 minutes. He used that time to rape and choke her unconscious, police wrote in charging documents.

Rackovan said the local prison’s all-female clerical staff have been moved from offices in housing units to an administrative section of the prison. He said that similar moves are happening at prisons across the state in response to the assault.

State Sen. Jake Corman, who asked the state prison system in September to remove all non-contact personnel and their work stations from inmate populations, said last week he has not heard an update from prison officials.

Corman, R-Bellefonte, said he expects to sit down with Department of Corrections officials sometime in the coming weeks.

State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff said he also expects to meet soon with DOC officials. Benninghoff called for a formal state government investigation in the weeks after the assault, appealing directly to Gov. Tom Corbett.

“We asked for a very thorough investigation,” Benninghoff, R-Benner Township, said last week. “Our expectations are high. Our expectations for actions in the future to prevent this kind of thing are going to be just as high.”

Robert Storm, vice president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, said in a statement that the DOC has failed to address what he called a major error and that prison leaders haven’t shown compassion.

Storm contends that the department ignored its own staffing requirements and cut manpower.

“One of the first things we learn in prison is that inmates know when they have a numbers advantage,” Storm said. “It’s time for the department to show the public what corrective action has been taken to ensure enough officers are on duty to protect staff and maintain order so that this can never happen again.”

Rackovan said staffing levels have not changed in response to the incident, but that the prison’s internal investigation is exploring whether understaffing was a factor in the assault.

He said he could not comment on how the inmate was able to get the employee alone for the 27 minutes during which the assault took place. That, too, he said, is under investigation.

“How that could have happened in all part of it,” Rackovan said. “They are looking into what staff were doing, and where staff were.”

Rackovan said he did not have a timetable on when the state prison system’s investigation might be complete.

Matt Carroll can be reached at 231-4631. Follow him on Twitter @Carrollreporter.

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