WASHINGTON, D.C. - Union officials representing corrections officers at U.S. Penitentiary at Lewisburg say a denial by Warden David J. Ebbert about an inmate riot at the facility in February has dealt a serious blow to his credibility and are calling for a congressional inquiry.
“It’s a credibility issue. We all have to be held to a high standard or how else how can the public be certain of what’s going on,” said Dave Bartlett, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 148.
On Wednesday, Bartlett and other union members met with U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and U.S. Rep. Tom Marino, R-10, asking them to investigate their claims that Ebbert was not forthright with the public about the Feb. 13 incident that arose when inmates protested a change in policy limiting their use of razors and management’s refusal to accept grievances.
The angered inmates, who are held in their cells for up to 23 hours a day, refused to follow rules and covered their cell windows so staff couldn’t see inside. Officers responded by using tear gas, concussion grenades and pepper balls.
A Special Operation Response Team (SORT) had to be called in and 22 inmates were placed in hard restraints, Bartlett said. During the incident, windows were blown out, he said.
Yet in March, when The Daily Item inquired about the incident, prison spokesman Shawn Barlett downplayed the seriousness of the event, denied windows were broken and said neither the staff or public was in danger.
Officers are “in danger every day. To say they’re not is just ludicrous,” Dave Bartlett said.
He is so concerned about management’s less than truthful response to the public that he’s asked for an inquiry into Ebbert’s handling of the incident.
Ebbert, who was warden at USP at Canaan in February 2013 when corrections officer Eric Williams, 34, was attacked and killed by an inmate, has been at Lewisburg since September.
Prison spokesman Barlett said he was unaware of the union’s concerns and declined to respond.
Dave Bartlett said Marino agreed to look into the matter and said Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has a previously planned visit to the Lewisburg prison in the next couple of months.
But Marino’s press secretary, Ryan Shucard, said he isn’t likely to wade too far into the dispute.
“Typically (Marino) won’t interject himself into labor conflicts. He’s most concerned about the safety of the officers and providing them the resources they need,” said Shucard. “Obviously we’ll pay attention. It is concerning that they feel the need to step outside of normal channels and air their grievances.”
Bartlett said the union’s issues are more than labor grievances. He took the complaints directly to Marino and Toomey because there have been prior instances of Ebbert’s acting in an untrustworthy manner, including promising to end the use of placing staff from other departments into correctional services.
“We want Congress to look into this and set the record straight,” he said.
It’s the second time this week Marino has been asked to investigate the prison management’s handling of the Feb. 13 incident.
Last Saturday, Dave Sprout, a paralegal with the Lewisburg Prison Project, a nonprofit inmate advocacy group, asked the congressman to hold an inquiry into what he described as excessive force used against inmates, which he said included alleged severe injuries that ranged from bleeding from the ears to severed fingers. Sprout adds that he hasn’t been able to confirm the extent of any of the alleged injuries.
Dave Bartlett denies excessive force was used and said the corrections officers responded to the inmates’ actions appropriately.
“We may have different concerns, but this (the union’s complaint) reinforces that somebody on the outside needs to look at what’s happening,” Sprout said.