HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania leaders need to be more aggressive making the state prison system safe, a former prison guard turned legislator said Wednesday.
“We’ve got serious problems,” said state Rep. Cris Dush, R-Indiana County. Dush, who worked at SCI Forest, was elected to the state House in 2014.
Dush spoke Wednesday in the wake of incidents at three state prisons in which staff were sickened by exposure to toxic drugs. That issue added to existing concerns among prison staff and their families that workers are increasingly targeted in assaults by inmates.
Sgt. Mark Baserman of SCI Somerset was murdered Feb. 26 — the first time a state prison worker had been killed in the line of duty in 39 years.
A month before Baserman’s death, a white supremacist convicted of killing a cellmate was charged with trying to use a razor to slash a corrections officer at SCI Somerset. That inmate had previously used a razor to attack a Hispanic prison guard at SCI Coal Township in Northumberland County.
Tina Swope, whose husband is a prison guard, said that too little has been done to make the prisons safer.
Swope said she considered it a “slap in the face” that Gov. Tom Wolf didn’t attend Baserman’s funeral while corrections officers from other states and Canada made the trip the service.
In a statement Wednesday, Wolf’s spokesman J.J. Abbott said the governor was scheduled to attend Baserman’s memorial service but had to change his schedule because of severe weather that prompted him to go to the state’s emergency management command center, instead.
“Sgt. Baserman’s death was a tragedy and that’s why Governor Wolf ensured the department acted swiftly to make changes to prevent a similar tragedy from happening again,” Abbott said pointing to a series of reforms announced Tuesday by the Department of Corrections.
That eight-point strategy, announced by Corrections Secretary John Wentzel, included new training to recognize dangerous substances, providing more protective gear for prison workers and adding equipment to make it harder to smuggle drugs into the prisons. The state has added new body scanners at the state prisons in Huntingdon and Coal Township.
“The safety and security of staff and inmates is paramount to the Department of Corrections,” Wetzel said. “Whether the threat is drugs or staff assaults, the agency is working vigorously to combat these threats on many fronts.”
State prisons also stopped selling boots to inmates after the attack on Baserman. The inmate who attacked Baserman had allegedly used his boots to kick the corrections officer.
After Baserman’s murder, state Rep. Carl Metzgar, R-Somerset County, announced plans for a number of bills intended to prevent attacks on prison guards.
There were 655 assaults on staff in 2018 through Monday, according to the Department of Corrections. There were 981 assaults in 2017, according to the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association.
Metzgar’s legislation would also bar any inmate convicted of assaulting a prison employee from getting parole, among other changes. His legislation has not yet been formally introduced at the Capitol.
The series of incidents in which prison workers were sickened after being exposed to toxic drugs has only made things worse, Dush said.
The drug exposures included an Aug. 6 at SCI Mercer in which a prison doctor and five guards were treated for contamination after being exposed to what prison officials called an unknown substance. All six employees had to undergo decontamination procedures and one was treated with Narcan, which is typically used to reverse opioid overdoses.
The medical facility had to be decontaminated due to the hazardous nature of the drugs the prison workers were exposed to, Dush said.
Less than a week later, three other prison workers were sickened after being exposed to drugs at the same prison. It was one of three state prisons to experience similar episodes in August, said Amy Worden, a Department of Corrections spokeswoman. The other prisons included SCI Greene and SCI Fayette. In all, 18 prison workers were sickened due to drug exposure in the incidents.
Dush said that some of the reforms proposed this week by Wetzel seem reasonable. But he thinks the state needs to do more to make sure the changes are deployed across the entire prison system.