The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

The Rave

October 20, 2012

County must confront history of missteps at prison

Northumberland County elected officials have been burned so often during their frequent separations from employees that they were understandably nervous about how to handle an allegation that a prison guard had been providing prescription painkillers to an inmate the guard had injured during "horseplay."

The county prison board, upon learning of the allegations, scheduled an emergency meeting and then announced that an unidentified guard had been suspended by the prison while an investigation was conducted.

Thursday, a day after the suspension was announced, two commissioners met with Warden Roy Johnson, then announced that a guard had been dismissed. No official was willing to come forward and publicly announce the name of the former prison guard, but the county's director of human resources confirmed that corrections officer William Reber, who had been employed at the prison on Wednesday, was no longer employed there on Thursday. No other guard had experienced such a change in status.

Prison officials said Reber had held his $25,000 a year job for about two years. In that time, he had managed to get named in at least two federal lawsuits in addition to the misstep that led to his dismissal. It is worth noting that Reber was not identified as the ringleader of the alleged assaults at the heart of the lawsuits. Rather, Reber was identified as one of three corrections officers who allegedly participated in the assaults at the direction of two sergeants.

The Northumberland County prison board dealt with the most recent allegations against Reber expeditiously. There are other lingering clouds that must be cleared or otherwise explained and in the long run, the county must develop a strategy to alter the pattern of questionable conduct by prison guards.

It probably comes down to recruiting, hiring and training. County officials must examine how prison guards are being selected and determine what can be done to do a better job of selecting new employees. The federal prison system requires all new corrections officers to have a college degree or three years of related experience. Northumberland County requires a high school degree. It is a minimum standard comparable to those used in neighboring county lockups. Yet, Northumberland County's prison has a history of missteps that needs to be overcome. In a county with 9 percent unemployment rate, there must be someone willing to guard the prison without causing as many problems as the people behind bars.

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