Blind spot: How Allegheny County Jail fails to prevent sex assault

June 11, 2018 GMT

The Allegheny County Jail is violating a federal law intended to prevent the types of sexual assaults that four former inmates — all women who sued the jail last year — say left them feeling frightened and vulnerable.

The Prison Rape Elimination Act, which went into effect in 2013, imposes more than 40 standards on jails to try to cut down on institutional assaults.

The jail is in violation of at least three of the act’s standards, a Trib investigation found. They include:

• Allowing blind spots that block the jail’s camera system from viewing entrances to cells where three of the four women said in lawsuits filed last year they were sexually assaulted by a former guard;

• Failing to post public reports each year on findings of sexual misconduct and any corrective actions;

• Allowing nearly two years to elapse since a deadline to prove the jail meets the rest of the act’s standards.

The violations have contributed to a culture of fear among women who are housed in the jail, often for nonviolent crimes like probation violations, shoplifting and drug possession. Many women are placed in housing units overseen by men, because of a clause in the guard union’s contract that allows guards, based on seniority, to choose where they work. Four women sued the jail last year saying they were sexually assaulted there, and two others told the Trib they were sexually harassed there in December.

“They have keys; they can do anything to you at night time as a female,” said Mersiha Tuzlic, 30, who said she was sexually harassed by a guard while in jail for a probation violation for a 2014 DUI. “It’s scary.”

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald referred questions about the jail’s failure to comply with the federal law to Orlando Harper, the jail warden. Fitzgerald hired Harper, a former deputy warden for operations in the Washington Department of Corrections, in 2012.

Harper told the Trib he does not plan to have a federally required audit done until next year or 2020. If it’s after Aug. 19, 2020, the jail will have missed the deadline for a second time.

“I feel that we don’t have that many sexual abuse cases and misconducts at our jail,” Harper said. “I feel we have a tight lid on that, so I didn’t feel that was important right now.”

Harper asked the U.S. Department of Justice to help him prepare for a review of the jail’s compliance with the federal law in the days after the Trib contacted him for this story.

State prisons that do not comply with PREA face a financial penalty, but for county jails, the only consequence is the potential to lose contracts to house state or federal inmates, according to a representative at Impact Justice, the organization that leads the National PREA Resource Center.

The Allegheny County Jail houses both, but is reimbursed only for federal inmates.

Off-camera cells

During the 10 months Joshua Reber worked as an Allegheny County Jail guard on female pod 4D in 2015, he sexually assaulted at least three inmates in second-floor, off-camera cells, according to the former inmates’ lawsuits.

One day, when an inmate was cleaning a bathroom used by guards, Reber came in and grabbed her butt, said the woman, who did not wish to be identified and is not named in her lawsuit. He groped her several more times.

“I was shocked. I was kinda disgusted by it at first because I had heard stories about him and two other females,” said the woman, who was in jail for a probation violation. “I’d be walking past him, and he’d just grab me. I used to work as a waitress, and that would happen to me a lot at my job. It took me to a place where it would bother me.”

Reber started giving her perks like coffee and lip balm. He then began coming in to start his shift early, unlock her cell door, lay down with her and kiss her.

According to state law, inmates cannot give consent.

The physical encounters continued for more than two months.

Reber then moved another woman, Melissa Behanna, to off-camera cell 221, despite her objections, and sexually assaulted her three times, her lawsuit said.

Cell 221, in the corner of the second floor, is so isolated and cold, inmates staying in there can see their breath, one former inmate said.

Reber was fired from the jail in December 2015 and charged with two counts of institutional sexual assault, a felony. He pled guilty to two misdemeanor counts of official oppression.

The jail has not added cameras to any cells since learning Reber was moving inmates to off-camera cells to sexually assault them, Harper said.

Fear of retaliation

Mersiha Tuzlic was changing her clothes in her Pod 4F cell one afternoon in December when a guard came to the doorway and stared at her, she said. Later that evening, as she brushed her teeth, he approached her and pushed his tongue against the inside of his cheek, mimicking oral sex, she said.

He came back 80 times in the next 20 hours — every 15 minutes — to stare in the cell and rattle the door, holding a flashlight, she said.

The next day Tuzlic reported the guard and never saw him again, she said.

For the following month, when she wasn’t in her cell, guards went in several times to throw her commissary items on the floor and stomp on her food, she said.

Many inmates fear retaliation for reporting guards, she said.

“There’s women who will ask other women to put the complaint in the box for them because they don’t want to be seen doing it,” said Tuzlic, who was released in February.

Tuzlic still feels violated, she said, and chokes up when she talks about it.

“That really itty bitty space they give us, I understand it’s property of Allegheny County, but at the same time, I should be able to feel somewhat safe in that itty bitty space,” Tuzlic said.

‘Culture of rape-tolerance’

Both women said they would feel safer if they staffed the women pods with women guards.

“We’re not looking at doing that,” Harper said. “Just because we put a female officer on a female pod, it doesn’t stop allegations.”

The guard union’s collective bargaining agreement, which expires June 30, 2019, prohibits that change, because guards can place bids for what pod they work on based on seniority, Harper said.

Reber, who began working at the jail in 2007, started working on the female pod by placing a bid and winning, according to two of the lawsuits.

Allegheny County Prison Employees Independent Union President Eric Paul declined comment through attorney Eric Stoltenberg.

The jail typically houses about 2,400 inmates, including 300-some women, Harper said. The jail has 446 full and part-time correctional officers, including 75 women, said Amie Downs, county spokeswoman.

Another former inmate who asked not to be identified said when she was in the jail in December, guard Robert Bender would linger around the shower area while the women inmates were showering.

“All the girls said something, like, ‘males ain’t allowed by the showers’ and he would literally creep around the showers and act like he needed something from the closet,” she said. The woman did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation if she goes back to jail.

Bender, who’s been a jail employee since 2004, was named as a defendant in Behanna’s case because he made a comment to her about his knowledge of their contact, the complaint said.

“The (officials) at the Allegheny County Jail created a culture of rape-tolerance, which allowed Mr. Reber’s supervisors and fellow correctional officers to remain silent,” said Robert Kramer, the attorney for two of the three women suing Reber.

The county, in response, said all such incidents are taken seriously and fully investigated but declined to comment on specific cases.

Jules Williams, a transgender woman, filed a lawsuit last year after she was sexually assaulted by her male cellmate in 2015, then put on display naked to be laughed at by guards in 2016, according to her lawsuit. Jail officials refused to house Williams with other women, her lawsuit says.

The jail has updated its transgender policies since that time, Harper said.

Eliminating blind spots

During a November 2016 deposition about a case involving an inmate beating that happened in an off-camera cell in 2013, attorney Steven Barth asked Harper why cameras had not been added to the off-camera cells.

“I haven’t had enough inmate violence to make that change at this time,” Harper replied, according to the transcript.

During testimony in June related to the same case, Barth again asked Harper if he’d decided to eliminate the blind spots or use those cells as “overflow cells” only when the jail was full. Harper answered no.

During an interview with the Trib, Harper said he has secured county funding to add cameras to eliminate the blind spots, and will try to do so this year.

The cost of the cameras has not yet been determined, but will come out of a jail fund that contains $500,000, Downs said.

In the meantime, inmates are still housed in the cells, Harper said.

Harper said he plans to look into posting the annual sexual misconduct report online in the future.

“That’s an oversight on my part,” he said.

Other audits given priority

Harper, who was hired to run the jail in 2012, pursued his first outside audit of the jail last year.

The American Correctional Association gave the jail a 99.3 percent compliance rate, which the county touted in a February news release.

The 49-page audit report, obtained by the Trib using Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law, contained only two pages that asked questions about sexual assault and harassment. Of the six alleged sexual misconduct incidents between inmates and staff in a 12-month period, zero were confirmed, the audit found. Based on the jail population, that number of complaints was not a cause for concern, the audit concluded.

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections also inspects the jail every other year, Harper said. The jail passed its state inspection in October, but that inspection focuses on the facility’s physical structure and does not check for sexual misconduct, said Amy Worden, a DOC spokeswoman.

Harper plans to have the jail audited by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care next year.

He will have the federally required Prison Rape Elimination Act audit after that — next year or in 2020, he said.

All jail employees undergo PREA training by jail officials and Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, jail officials said. Inmates can report sexual misconduct to the jail’s PREA officer or anonymously to PAAR, Harper said. An Allegheny County Police detective investigates all allegations. Victims are sent to the hospital to have a rape kit done, separated from their attackers and offered counseling.

Positive change

Out-of-court legal settlements paid to former inmates are often small, such as the $32,000 paid in December to Behanna.

Many of the former inmates who sue, and the lawyers that represent them, say they don’t do it for the money, but to force the jail to improve conditions for future inmates.

“It’s to bring awareness,” said one woman about the lawsuit she filed last year. “They are aware of it inside the jail, but I think the public needs to be aware of it. With the ‘me too’ movement that’s going on now, people need to understand it’s happening right here, too.”

Kramer said he plans to ask a judge to sign an order to force the jail follow the Prison Rape Elimination Act standards, including submitting to an audit.

Tuzlic was one of the five women who sued the county in December 2016 for placing pregnant inmates in solitary confinement for weeks for minor offenses.

When Tuzlic was back at the jail earlier this year, she saw the pregnant inmates walking around during lockdown and receiving bottled water — changes enacted after her lawsuit.

“It brought tears to my eyes,” she said. “It made me feel good because it made a positive change.”

Theresa Clift is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-5669, tclift@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tclift.