Lawsuit Claims Pennsylvania Wardens Let Guards Rape Women in Cells for Years

A former inmate has filed suit against Pennsylvania’s Lackawanna County over its prison facility’s “unending sexual harassment and sexual assault of female inmates,” claiming the “highest-ranking officials” were aware of the scope of the abuse.

This is the third federal lawsuit and the fourth plaintiff in the county’s prison sexual-assault scandal, which has involved more than 16 victims and at least 10 alleged perpetrators who worked as corrections officers and prison employees.

Seven current and former guards were charged Feb. 14 following a grand jury investigation into reports of sexual assaults at the prison. The indictment claimed the culture of fear and abuse of power—for the guards’ sexual gratification—was going on for more than a decade.

Administrators, corrections staff, and the prison board “utterly ignored their responsibility to prevent the systematic” assaults by engaging in a culture of “silence, cover-up, and retaliation,” according to the new complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

Josh Shapiro, the state’s attorney general, said in February that the guards forced inmates into sexual acts in cells and utility closets, The New York Times reported. Shapiro’s office had been conducting an investigation into the abuse for the better part of a year, which culminated in the statewide grand jury.

“This was not one rogue prison guard,” Shapiro said at a news conference earlier this year. “They took advantage of them for their own sick gratification. Then they threatened to make these inmates’ lives worse if they told anyone about the abuse.”

The county paid out $750,000 in April 2016 to settle the first lawsuit. The second one, filed in July 2016, remains pending for two more women plaintiffs, The Citizens’ Voice reports.

The woman who filed this latest suit claims she was abused in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015. She is demanding compensatory and punitive damages and has requested a jury trial.

The lawsuit names 16 victims and nine defendants, some of whom are not themselves accused of sexual assault, including Warden Vincent Mooney, Warden Robert McMillen, Prison Administrator Thomas Staff, Sgt. Kate Fanning, Sgt. Isaac Hebron, Correctional Officer Joseph Black, Correctional Officer John Schnipes, and Correctional Officer Jeffrey Staff.

Just last week, a judge determined that Jeffrey Staff, 42, would go to trial on one count of institutional sexual assault. He denies the allegations, and his lawyer questioned his accuser’s credibility at a preliminary hearing, The Citizens’ Voice reported.

The suit alleges Staff engaged in sex acts with the former inmate three times while she was on work release or under court supervision. At least two other employees, Hebron and Fanning, allegedly knew about the incidents and threatened to retaliate against her if she told anyone about it.

“They reprimanded her, treating this victim as a perpetrator and stating that she was going to ruin Defendant Staff’s career as a correctional officer,” according to the court documents. “They threatened retaliation in the form of incarceration and segregation from the general population.”

“At all relevant times, [she] felt compelled to engage in flirtation and sexual activity” because “she feared retaliation,” the complaint states.

The woman claims she was also sexually assaulted by former guards Schnipes and Black, neither of whom have been criminally charged in her case. Both men, however, have been charged in other sexual assaults, the Citizens’ Voice reported.

In February, Schnipes was charged with abusing four other inmates. Black pleaded guilty in 2015 to assaulting five inmates. He was sentenced to a maximum of eight years in state prison.

The plaintiff alleges she had seen Black “engage in sexual relations” with her roommate enough times that she was once forced to “manually stimulate” him, after which she was promised “cigarettes, coffee, and candy” for keeping quiet, according to the lawsuit.

“Whenever you see this kind of scope, whenever you see this kind of pervasive culture that was allowed to exist, you have to wonder how far up the chain this goes,” Shapiro said in February. “I want this community to know we are continuing to work to answer that question.”

A Lackawanna County spokesperson said most of the allegations “occurred many, many years ago,” claiming that the prison is now safe for its female inmates, the Associated Press reported in February