Woman files suit over alleged Rockview rape by inmate

mcarroll@centredaily.comApril 10, 2014 

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Aerial photograph of Rockview State Prison grounds.

NABIL K. MARK

The former Rockview state prison employee who authorities said was beaten, choked unconscious and raped by an inmate in a prison office is suing the state Department of Corrections, the prison, her boss and the warden removed after the incident.

Attorneys for the woman, who filed the suit Tuesday in federal court, claim that safety protocols implemented after a review of the July assault already should have been in place “long before any civilian employee was victimized by an inmate.”

A state police investigation revealed the woman, a clerk who was not to have contact with inmates, was left alone with a convict for 27 minutes and that she sounded an emergency whistle before the assault but no help came. The Centre Daily Times does not identify alleged victims of sexual assaults.

Police have charged Omar Best, a former Rockview inmate who has since been transferred to another state prison, with rape, sexual assault and two counts of aggravated assault. Best, who was not named as a defendant in the woman’s lawsuit, is expected to face trial in the criminal case on May 20 in Centre County Court.

Police said the woman had complained about Best in the past, telling supervisors he made her feel uncomfortable.

The assault prompted an internal investigation by the Department of Corrections, which led to sweeping changes, including the replacement of then-superintendent Marirosa Lamas and increased security measures, the department secretary, John Wetzel, said in December.

Williamsport attorney Clifford Rieders, who is representing the woman, said in a statement that his client claims there was a breakdown in the reporting of inappropriate inmate behavior, a free mingling of potentially dangerous inmates with administrative staff, and the ability of a violent sexual predator to reach the woman with ease.

“It is also claimed that there was a lack of training of correctional staff, a failure to have a unit manager located on the block in question, and many other deficiencies as well,” Rieders said in the statement.

According to the lawsuit, corrections officer Kenneth Shilling told the woman that he would “take care of her” and relay concerns she had about Best. Shilling, of Burnham, is named as one of the defendants.

The lawsuit also names the woman’s immediate supervisor, Sharon Clark, of Munson, as a defendant.

A Department of Corrections representative declined to comment on the lawsuit Thursday.

In the suit, the woman’s attorneys claim that there were two correctional officers working in the central office at the time of the assault but said the prison requires four officers to be on duty. The suit also claims 70 additional corrections officers were hired after the alleged assault.

The woman has since been transferred to a job in another state agency, prison officials have said.

The Corrections Department’s internal investigation turned up failures such as a lack of staff meetings or documentation of issues raised by employees, failure to provide housing unit inspections, inadequate or nonexistent safety alarms for employees, and a breakdown in superiors responding to reports of inappropriate inmate behavior, state prison officials previously said.

A Philadelphia native, Best was incarcerated at the Rockview prison earlier in 2013 for rape, sexual assault and involuntary deviate sexual intercourse charges stemming from a 1999 incident.

The woman’s attorneys said in the suit that she suffers from feelings of fear, stress, anxiety, distress, trauma, confusion and embarrassment stemming from the attack. They are asking for “all available damages, including punitive damages.”

The lawsuit is the second against the Corrections Department since December, when another Rockview employee sued, claiming she told her superiors she didn’t feel safe doing her job and was demoted and passed over for a promotion because she voiced her complaints.

That lawsuit, brought by counselor Melissa Reed, alleges that supervisors at the prison never acted on her complaints — which she first raised in October 2011 — until August, when a team from outside the prison came in to investigate safety protocols after the Best incident.

Reed said she disclosed her complaints to the outside investigators, who promised her confidentiality. However, she soon found herself being transferred to a lower-level job that required her to work in isolated groups with inmates and had fewer safety protocols than the counselor job, according to the lawsuit.

Reed claims the Department of Corrections violated the state’s whistle-blower statute by discriminating and retaliating against her because she raised the complaints. The lawsuit was filed in October with Commonwealth Court in Harrisburg, and Reed is seeking compensatory damages and an injunction to stop the alleged discrimination and retaliation.

The Department of Corrections has asked the court to throw out the lawsuit, saying Reed didn’t show evidence of alleged wrongdoing that is defined in the whistle-blower law and that she did not show her complaints were connected to her job transfer and being passed over for the promotion.

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