Our View | Sexual assault of female employee at Rockview needs response

October 13, 2013 

Every revelation about the July 25 sexual assault of a female employee at the State Correctional Institution at Rockview brings renewed shock and outrage.

It’s past time for someone to take responsibility for the oversights that allowed a non-contact employee to be brutally attacked by an inmate with a sexually violent history, and for 30 minutes to pass before anyone came to her aid.

To date, we have heard little concerning policy changes resulting from this attack, or about disciplinary action for those who could have prevented the incident or intervened more quickly.

That’s unacceptable.

We are deeply disappointed at the silence from state corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel down to Rockview Superintendent Marirosa Lamas and her staff.

The victim and our community deserve answers.

As reported by police investigators:

•  A female employee, just a month into her time at the prison, was brutally attacked in July. The employee was classified as “non-contact,” meaning she was not to be in the presence of inmates.

•  Charges of felony rape and aggravated assault have been filed against inmate Omar Best, who had a history of sexual violence and yet was permitted to be near female staff.

•  The employee had raised concerns previously about Best coming into her office and making inappropriate comments.

•  When Best entered the woman’s work area, she blew a whistle to alert others, but no one responded.

•  Video surveillance tapes show Best waiting outside her office for nearly a minute, then spending more than 27 minutes in the victim’s office and walking out on his own.

•  Police say Best choked the woman unconscious after threatening her, saying he had a knife.

•  The victim awoke to find herself partially undressed, with some of her clothes missing. She told police she had feared for her life during the onset of the attack.

Local legislators Jake Corman and Kerry Benninghoff have called for answers concerning this incident, and to date the response has been virtually zero.

Corman asked how a “non-contact” worker could be in that position, and demanded that the DOC address its policies.

“It’s shocking to me that non-contact employees, who are not guards and who have not received defensive training, would have any contact with inmates or be left alone with inmates,” he told the corrections department.

Benninghoff demanded, all the way to the governor’s office, that answers be found concerning the failure of the system to protect a state employee from harm.

“There was obviously a breakdown in security procedures that would allow this type of inmate any time alone with a young lady,” Benninghoff told Gov. Tom Corbett in a letter that called for a full state investigation.

We agree with this Benninghoff assessment: “There are not any excuses for this, and it never should have happened.”

But it did, and can’t be ignored or swept under the rug.

Rockview and DOC leaders might point to factors, from budget cuts to staffing challenges, that could allow for security concerns to develop.

But no administrative response could possibly explain how this victim could blow a whistle for help and get no response; why no one heeded her earlier warnings that the inmate might do her harm; and how an inmate with a violent sexual past could be alone with a non-contact female staffer for one second, let alone nearly 30 minutes.

This terrible incident was the product of a bad system, poor judgment and possibly negligence by those responsible for keeping this state employee safe.

She will carry the physical and emotional scars of this attack for the rest of her life. We hope she finds support in friends and family.

And she deserves justice, from the courts now prosecuting Best on the horrific charges he faces, and from the cell blocks and administrative offices at Rockview and the halls of government in Harrisburg.

A failure of this magnitude demands action.

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