Rep. Kerry Benninghoff calls for state investigation into brutal sexual assault at Rockview

A local legislator is calling for a state investigation into the brutal sexual assault of a female staff member by an inmate at the State Correctional Institution at Rockview.

State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, said in a letter Wednesday to Gov. Tom Corbett that a formal state investigation is “necessary to protect prison workers in the future” after a series of attacks at Rockview prison, culminating in the one July 25 on a female clerk.

State police at Rockview are conducting a formal criminal investigation into that attack but have offered few details.

Benninghoff said the employee, a unit clerk assigned to a housing area, was sexually assaulted and knocked unconscious during the attack.

He questioned how the inmate was able to be in proximity to the female employee.

“There was obviously a breakdown in security procedures that would allow this type of inmate any time alone with a young lady,” Benninghoff wrote in the letter to Corbett. “There are not any excuses for this, and it never should have happened.”

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Susan McNaughton said Thursday that it is conducting its own investigation of the incident.

“We fully investigate every assault to determine how and why it happened and how we can prevent assaults in the future,” McNaughton said in an email.

Benninghoff is calling for a review of staffing procedures at the prison.

“I am writing to request a formal, comprehensive investigation, in tandem with the state police criminal investigations, to the staffing procedures, scheduling and policies at SCI Rockview,” Benninghoff wrote. “These failures resulted in the brutal, physical, sexual assault of a young female, non-officer, employee.”

According to Benninghoff, it was the fifth assault on staff in the past few months at the prison.

“This exceeds similar-sized institutions’ annual assault rates and even Rockview’s, which generally has a higher staff assault rate,” he wrote.

Prison spokesman Jeff Rackovan has said the July 25 assault came two weeks after two corrections officers — a man and a woman — were punched by an inmate in the exercise yard.

Rackovan previously said the female officer in that assault suffered bruises but no broken bones.

McNaughton said Thursday that “while it does not appear that the assaults that have taken place recently are related, we are looking into that as well.”

During the July 25 incident, an inmate went into the area at the prison where a female staff member worked and physically assaulted her, state police said. They reported the woman was knocked unconscious and showed signs of being sexually assaulted.

Rackovan previously said the woman was taken by ambulance to Mount Nittany Medical Center and was released. Her alleged attacker was a general population inmate who had some freedom of movement in the facility.

McNaughton said prison Superintendent Marirosa Lamas met with staff the day of the most recent assault. DOC officials traveled to the prison the following day to meet with staff.

She said DOC officials are “looking into the concerns employees may have ... raised during that meeting.”

“We take these matters very seriously,” McNaughton said.

Benninghoff said in a phone interview Thursday that he’s heard those concerns directly from prison employees and their families.

“We in the community take for granted these people are there protecting us,” Benninghoff said. “When something breaks down and one of their own is not protected, it’s an emotional and psychological matter.”

Robert Storm, vice president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officer Association, said Thursday that “morale in the jail is poor” and that staffing is the No. 1 issue.

Storm said employees aren’t asking for overtime, but instead that the prison meet the minimum DOC staffing requirements, something he claims doesn’t always happen.

“There should be a discussion or an investigation,” Storm said. “You would think an incident as bad as this, it would be a wake-up call. We have to do something.”

A police investigation into the latest assault continues, but additional information has not been released. Investigators could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Benninghoff said a state investigation would differ from the one being conducted by police and would instead focus on incident prevention, security procedures and staffing.

“The criminal investigation will focus on any laws that were broken and charges that should be filed against the perpetrator,” he said in a statement. “I am proposing a separate investigation to determine how something like this could happen and how we can prevent it from reoccurring in the future.”