Benner state prison failed to protect inmate from cellmate who killed him, lawsuit claims

The family of a Benner state prison inmate who was killed at the facility filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Friday that accused prison officials of failing to protect him from his dangerous cellmate.

Eric Mueller, the man who allegedly killed 23-year-old Derric Harsh Jr., was known to have “major” mental illnesses and posed an “imminent risk of extreme violence” to a cellmate, according to the 10-page lawsuit filed in the U.S. Eastern District Court of Pennsylvania.

Harsh was sent to the prison in February 2017 to serve an eight to 16-year sentence. He pleaded guilty in 2016 to raping and molesting two teenage girls in Lancaster County.

Mueller was distressed that he lost his single-cell status and claimed prison staff told him he would have to kill someone to reclaim that status, attorney Paul Messing wrote in the lawsuit.

“Correction officials failed to take steps to protect Derric Harsh Jr. and this other inmate murdered him. A senseless death that could have been avoided,” Messing said Monday. “We’ve gone to federal court to seek vindication of the rights that Mr. Harsh had to a reasonably safe and secure environment.”

Pennsylvania Department of Corrections spokeswoman Sue McNaughton did not respond Monday to requests for comment.

A cell inside a housing unit is seen during a 2013 dedication and tour at State Correctional Institution at Benner Township. Centre Daily Times, file

Benner employees were “deliberately indifferent” and did not attempt to intervene during the altercation between Harsh and Mueller, Messing wrote.

“We believe correctional officials knew he was acting out in this extremely threatening way,” Messing said. “It was clear to anybody who was paying attention that the lives of other inmates and, in particular, his cellmate, were in imminent danger.”

Harsh died by manual strangulation, the Centre County coroner’s office ruled in March. His death was ruled a homicide — the first in the prison’s six-year history.

State police at Rockview investigated Harsh’s death and submitted its findings to the Centre County district attorney’s office, which declined prosecution, trooper Christopher Fox said Monday.

“The matter has been reviewed with his (Harsh’s) family and they understand he’s currently serving two life sentences,” District Attorney Bernie Cantorna said Monday. “If charges are going to be filed, it will be done in conjunction with the wishes of the family.”

A housing unit in Benner state prison on April 1, 2013. Centre Daily Times, file

The lawsuit claims prison officials violated Harsh’s Eighth and 14th Amendment rights. The family is requesting a trial and seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

Harsh is one of at least six Benner state prison inmates to die at the prison this year. The prison averaged four deaths per year from 2013-18, according to data provided by the state DOC.

The most stark difference, however, is the manner of death.

About 90% of the prison’s deaths from 2013-18 were ruled natural or accidental. The remaining 10% were ruled suicide or homicide, according to state DOC data.

About 33% of the prison’s deaths this year were ruled natural or accidental. The remaining 67% were ruled suicide or homicide, according to state DOC data.

Bret Pallotto primarily reports on courts and crime for the Centre Daily Times. He grew up in Lewistown and graduated from Lock Haven University.