The superintendent of the Rockview and Benner state prisons was removed from her post Thursday after an internal investigation into how an inmate allegedly sexually assaulted a female employee revealed problems in the way the facilities were being run.
The shakeup, with the replacement of Marirosa Lamas with separate superintendents at the two medium-security prisons, was among personnel moves and safety measures announced Thursday in Bellefonte by state Corrections Secretary John Wetzel.
The changes come almost five months after the July 25 incident in which state police said inmate Omar Best was alone with the woman for 27 minutes, choked her into unconsciousness and raped her. Police said the employee had previously reported problems with Best and that when she blew an emergency whistle, no one came to her aid.
The investigation also 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 non-existent safety alarms for employees, and a breakdown in superiors responding to reports of inappropriate inmate behavior.
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“After reviewing investigative information, it is clear to me that we need to take Rockview and Benner in a new direction,” Wetzel said in a statement. “Our review has revealed many instances where our own policies had not been followed, as well as areas where our procedures needed to be improved.”
Wetzel attributed the breakdowns to “complacency,” saying that “When things are going well, sometimes we relax and sometimes we’re not as vigilant as we should be.”
Lamas was appointed the superintendent of the State Correctional Institution at Rockview in March 2010 and took the leadership role at SCI Benner Township when it opened earlier this year. She is being kept on as a corrections employee, but Wetzel would not discuss her future role.
In her place at the Rockview prison will be Steven Glunt, whose appointment is effective Thursday. He previously was the superintendent of SCI-Houtzdale and the Quehanna Boot Camp in Clearfield County.
David Pitkins, a former regional deputy secretary for the Department of Corrections, will be the acting superintendent of SCI-Benner starting Jan. 1.
Wetzel said other officers at the prisons will be disciplined because of the alleged assault, but he could not talk specifics because of confidentiality rules regarding personnel matters. But he was quick to say that the failures are not attributed to corruption.
“We’re talking about good people, good staff members, who make mistakes,” he said. “I’ve got to stress that.”
Best has since been transferred to the state prison in Huntingdon County, and the employee he is accused of assaulting was transferred to a job in another state agency, Wetzel said.
State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff and Sen. Jake Corman said they were pleased with the safety measures that were announced Thursday.
Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, had called for the investigation after a series of attacks at the prison. Corman, R-Benner Township, advocated to move the workspaces of noncontact employees, or those who don’t have defensive training, away from inmate housing.
“The fact that we’re going to implement the changes not only here in Bellefonte but across the system says it was worth the wait,” Benninghoff said, referring to the length of time the investigation took.
Wetzel would not discuss how the employee, a clerk typist, came to be alone with Best that day. He said he knows exactly what happened, but he did not want to speak publicly until the criminal prosecution of Best is finished.
In the charging document against Best, police said he had been directed to stay away from the woman because of previous complaints that he made her feel uncomfortable. The morning of the assault, though, Best went to her workspace to empty the trash, but threw the can on the ground and assaulted her, police said.
Best, 36, plans to take his case to trial, said his lawyer, public defender Deborah Lux.
He’s currently serving a sentence for a rape conviction in Philadelphia and would be eligible for release as early as 2020.
As a result of the investigation, clerk typists across the state prison system have been moved away from inmate housing units. Wetzel said technology, such as the Internet, make it possible for the employees to be located a distance from the higher-ups whom they assist. In addition, Wetzel said all employees will now have some kind of device to alert others of an emergency.
Another measure in place for the Rockview and Benner prison campus is the addition of an internal security officer.
The state corrections officers’ union had not seen the investigative report, its president, Roy Pinto, said Thursday.
“A change in leadership was necessary, but we will not comment further until we’ve had an opportunity to thoroughly review the findings,” Pinto said. “It’s our hope the steps taken to improve safety at SCI-Rockview are applied statewide to protect all employees.”
Wetzel said the Corrections Department assumes all the liability from this alleged assault, though he declined to discuss how the changes could open the department up to a lawsuit.
“What happened happened, and it shouldn’t have happened,” Wetzel said. “If there’s liability, then we own the liability.”