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DOJ Closes Investigation of Western Penitentiary

The U.S. Department of Justice has concluded its two-year investigation of physical and sexual abuse at SCI-Pittsburgh.

“The safety and security of inmates charged to our custody is very important to us, and we do take it very seriously,” said Susan McNaughton, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections spokeswoman. “So we worked cooperatively with the Department of Justice on a number of issues and actually have made so much progress that they’ve decided now to go ahead and close their investigation.”

The investigation was prompted after about 30 prisoners were sexually assaulted and abused in the prison’s F-Block.

According to the DOJ’s letter to Gov. Tom Corbett, the victims included sex offenders and inmates who were gay, transgender or gender nonconforming.

Corbett’s administration hired new leadership for the prison by mid-2011, and seven corrections officers were charged in December 2011 in connection to the misconduct.

In March 2012, the DOJ toured the facility and decided that the Department of Corrections needed to do more to protect its prisoners.

McNaughton said they and the staff at SCI-Pittsburgh have worked hard to make changes.

“They actually fixed some oversight and accountability measures, they and we as the Department have enforced and changed and improved some of our policies that allow inmates to file grievances or make complaints of abuse,” McNaughton said.

McNaughton said they have also implemented better screening procedures so they can identify the inmates and work to protect them in accordance to the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).

“We actually made some security improvements,” McNaughton said. “We increased staff, we added cameras, we cornered off some areas of the institution that aren’t being used to prevent anybody from getting into that area, as a department, we actually hired an individual to serve as our Prison Rape Elimination Act Coordinator.”

The Department of Corrections named Jennifer Feicht the statewide PREA Coordinator in December 2012.

McNaughton said they are always looking to improve.

“If something happens at one institution it always, no matter what it is, makes us take an internal review of the whole system to see if, wow, is this happening anywhere else?” McNaughton said. “What can we do to change things to make things better? So that’s always something that we’re always doing.”