Rockview prison employee sues, alleges safety fears, retaliation after state investigation

A Rockview state prison employee who told her superiors she didn’t feel safe doing her job has claimed in a lawsuit she was demoted and passed over for a promotion because she voiced her complaints.

The lawsuit brought by counselor Melissa Reed alleges that supervisors at the State Correctional Institution at Rockview in Benner Township never acted on her complaints — which she first raised in October 2011 — until August 2013, when a team from outside the prison came into to investigate safety protocols after police said an inmate raped a clerical employee in July.

That alleged attack ultimately led to the removal of Rockview Superintendent Marirosa Lamas last week as well as new safeguards and policies.

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 whistler-blower statute by discriminating and retaliating against her because she raised the complaints. The lawsuit was filed in October with the 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. The department’s lawyer says 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.

A message requesting comment was not returned by Reed’s lawyer, David Consiglio. The Department of Corrections declined comment through a spokeswoman.

In the lawsuit, Reed said she received more than 100 letters from an unidentified inmate. Some were sexual in nature, the lawsuit said, and Reed reported each one to her supervisor.

Reed said nothing was done internally, but that changed when state prison system officials began reviewing Rockview’s safety protocols after the alleged assault in July. Reed raised her concerns during an interview with the investigators that she said she was told was to be a confidential interview.

But, Reed said, her comments must have been disclosed to her superiors, because on Sept. 4, the inmate determined to have written the 100-plus letters was moved off the cell block where she worked to solitary confinement. Shortly after that, she received a letter saying an inmate would rape her, according to the lawsuit.

Five days later on Sept. 9, the inmate was removed from solitary confinement, and the day after that, Reed said she requested additional safeguards.

On Sept. 11, she was informed she’d been given a new job of a treatment specialist, one that came with fewer safeguards and had her transferred to a different part of the prison. Reed said the position requires “ongoing, regular and often isolated contact” with groups of inmates in therapeutic and educational sessions.

According to the lawsuit, Reed saw the move as a demotion because the new job involved fewer administrative duties. When she asked why she was transferred, she was told it was because the prison needed women in that position, the lawsuit said.

Reed won back her counselor position after she filed a grievance. However, her lawsuit said she was told she could not work with the same inmates she previously worked with and that her caseload would start over.

In addition, Reed said she was passed over for a promotion, and she thinks it was due to her complaints about her safety. She applied for a hearing examiner position in June, and around the time she was transferred out of her counselor position to the treatment specialist position, she learned a less-experienced male co-worker got the job.

In its written objections to the lawsuit, the Department of Corrections said Reed does not tie any of the sequences of events that happened to her to the reports about fears for her safety. The department’s lawyer also said Reed’s lawsuit should be thrown out because it didn’t include some legal notices required under the state’s civil procedures.

Last week, Corrections Secretary John Wetzel announced personnel moves and safeguards after the investigation into the alleged rape by the inmate.

Among the moves, the Rockview and Benner prisons will have separate superintendents, as opposed to just one, and clerk typists statewide were moved away from inmate housing units.