Our View | Prison safety starts at the top

December 21, 2013 

The Department of Corrections has dropped the hammer on the administration at Rockview and Benner state prisons.

But this is no time for leaders locally or in Harrisburg to relax.

DOC Secretary John Wetzel traveled to Bellefonte on Thursday to detail problems uncovered and steps taken at the two local state correctional institutions in the wake of the reported July rape of a female worker at Rockview by an inmate with a violent past.

We called for swift and decisive action, for heads to roll. At least one apparently did, as a new superintendent is running Rockview and another individual will take the reins at Benner in January. Both sites had been under a single leader.

But we caution the secretary and others at the DOC: Safety conditions must improve at Rockview and across the corrections system, or the next cuts must occur farther up the chain.

Wetzel’s words Thursday suggest that he realizes he is also on the hot seat.

“It starts with me,” he said. “It starts with the secretary of the department.”

Yes, it does.

The investigation uncovered a string of failures involving department policies and procedures, including a lack of oversight and inspection of the unit where the alleged attack occurred.

Wetzel said Rockview had an “archaic alarm system.” The victim told police she had blown a whistle when she realized she was in danger, but no one came to help.

Surveillance cameras show she was alone with her alleged attacker, inmate Omar Best, for 27 minutes.

State lawmakers have questioned how a staffer with no corrections training and designated to have no contact with inmates could be alone with a man who had a documented sexually violent history.

“What happened doesn’t match up with what should have happened,” Wetzel said in the understatement of the year.

He added: “You can’t change the past. But we have a duty to learn from these events and to make it much less likely that something like this could happen again, in any of our units.”

The bottom line, Wetzel said, was that “complacency” was the norm when “vigilance” was needed.

The worker has been moved to a job in another state agency. Best was transferred to another facility and faces charges linked to the Rockview incident.

Although the nature of this situation is deeply troubling, it was not an isolated breakdown. We have reported numerous other violent events at Rockview and Benner in recent months, including one inmate slashing another’s neck during a game of chess last week.

The new officials at each institution will have plenty to work on, for the safety of individuals who work at those prisons and even of those incarcerated there, and for the welfare of the community.

“Every day, you’ve got to come to the job and, as unpleasant as it is, understand where you’re working,” Wetzel said.

“What happened happened, and it shouldn’t have happened,” he said. “If there’s liability, then we own the liability.”

As we’ve seen, that liability could take many forms, including people losing their jobs.

We expect those working at Benner and Rockview at all levels to take very seriously their duties in improving conditions.

Ultimately, failure to fix the problems that allowed for a young woman to be brutally attacked in her workplace would fall on Wetzel.

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