Prison safety reforms still waiting to be put into place
It has been a little over a year since the slaying of Pennsylvania State Corrections Officer Sgt. Mark Baserman at the hands of an inmate already serving a life sentence for murder. Many of the safety reforms our organization has called for in the wake of his tragic death still have not been implemented, and it’s long past time to rectify this.
Sgt. Baserman was killed after being attacked without provocation by an inmate who kicked him while wearing Timberland boots. While Timberland boots were immediately pulled from the commissary and confiscated from inmates, state-issued work boots are still available to inmates. Let me be clear: These heavy boots are dangerous and can be used as weapons that put my members at risk. We strongly support legislation of Rep. Carl Metzgar, R-Somerset/Bedford, to outlaw them. Sgt. Baserman is a hero, and we must honor his memory by removing similar weapons.
There are other dangerous items available to inmates. Right now, they can buy combination locks and plastic knitting needles. I’m sure you can imagine the damage a padlock tied in a sock could do when swung at a person’s head. The injuries needles can inflict are apparent. Banning these and similar items is a safety measure that can be implemented quickly.
Ensuring that corrections officers have access to the proper equipment and training is also essential to their safety, other SCI staff and even inmates.
Act 174 of 2016, championed by state Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Washington, provided all corrections officers be equipped with pepper spray. Rep. Snyder’s work is helping to save lives, and it’s time to build on that. Her current proposed legislation, House Bill 45, would rightly equip our officers with Tasers. Sometimes, our officers only have seconds to save their lives — and the lives of others. Tasers increase the likelihood we can save lives.
Pennsylvania needs more corrections officers. The amount of overtime hours is taking a toll on my members. Frequently, we must accept mandated overtime and often work double eight-hour shifts. Now, imagine working in a prison for 16 hours with some of the most violent criminals who want to hurt you — while you’re exhausted mentally and physically. This is the 21st century. We should be well beyond putting hard-working, public servants through this, especially when they’re risking their lives every time they enter a prison block. The answer here is simple: Let’s put more officers on the job.
We also need more officers because some are being left alone in the prison population, outnumbered by large numbers of inmates. As we always say, if there’s one thing an inmate understands, it’s a number advantage. Should violence break out, they would have no immediate backup.
Our department must create staffing plans to stop these extremely dangerous patterns of isolationism. Lawmakers can help our department by providing for sufficient funding to hire additional corrections officers. Let’s get this done.
Unfortunately, the consequences for an inmate who assaults or harms a corrections officer have also decreased. The culture that permeates through the ranks at most of the SCI’s is to not write misconducts, and hearing examiners do not vigorously enforce rules infractions when they do occur.
Inmates are simply not punished appropriately for their actions, and worse, they know it.
There must be more severe punishments for inmates who assault corrections officers. Though they are already in prison and their freedoms have been severely curtailed there are still incentives for them that can be taken away — even those serving a life sentence.
Any assault should immediately require an inmate be sent to a Restricted Housing Unit, where they are limited in their access to officers and others. Commissary accounts should also be suspended. Most important for a peaceful society, any inmate who harms an officer should be ineligible for parole. If they are willing to hurt those who are there to maintain order and protect them, imagine what they will do once they’re released. Measures such as these would go a long way to changing the culture of the SCIs and help restore the respect for authority that is vital to safety in a prison setting.
The PSCOA’s proposals would protect corrections officers and boost their morale. When you think about it, officers are locked in prison every day. This is part of the job. We accept it.
What we do not accept is when people do not have our backs — especially when the steps needed to have our backs are simple to put into practice.
Jason Bloom is the president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association.