After a death in a Pa. prison, changes needed to protect corrections officers | Opinion

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There are common sense approaches that will make our state prisons safer for the people who work there.

The Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association (PSCOA) has always made the safety and security of corrections officers our top priority. That’s why it was so heart-wrenching to lose one of our own when a hero, Sgt. Mark Baserman, was murdered at SCI-Somerset by an inmate with a history of violence inside and outside of the institution.

The killing of a hero made local, state, and national headlines. It was a dark day. The pain and anger felt by so many of Sgt. Baserman’s brothers and sisters at SCI-Somerset is still very raw.

Camera icon PA Department of Corrections
Correctional officer Sgt. Mark Baserman died Feb. 26, 11 days after he was assaulted by an inmate at a state prison in Somerset, Pa.

But the violence didn’t end there, unfortunately. Most didn’t notice because it just didn’t make national headlines. Only a few days later, two more of our corrections officers were injured in an attack by an inmate at SCI-Coal Township who had a history of violence in multiple state facilities.

To be clear, when corrections officers sign up for this job, we certainly know it comes with serious risks. The potential for violence is always a second away, and the methods for executing that violence are brutal. As we always say, we patrol the toughest beats in the state.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t take steps right now to make state prisons more safe for the thousands of men and women who work there every day. That will require multiple stakeholders to work together. Fortunately, that track record already exists in our commonwealth.

Two years ago, working together with the General Assembly, State Rep. Pam Snyder (D., Greene), and the Wolf administration, the PSCOA advocated and received approval for all corrections officers to carry pepper spray. Snyder’s legislation was modeled after a federal law enacted in response to the death of a corrections officer at U.S. Penitentiary-Canaan, in northeastern Pennsylvania. The officer was working alone, armed only with a flashlight, handcuffs, and a radio. He was stabbed 130 times.

Given the violent record of so many inmates, this safety improvement cannot be overstated, and is a testament to people working together for the common good.

So, where do we go from here?

The PSCOA believes a task force should be formed to identify and pursue new methods to improve prison safety for all employees. It would include members of the Department of Corrections, General Assembly, law enforcement, and the PSCOA.

Here are four ideas we would immediately bring to the table for consideration:

Re-evaluate all staffing and safety standards. We must take a fresh look at how these standards are applied. Improvements can always be made — and the PSCOA should be at the table, since our members are on the front lines every day.

Standardization of the Restricted Housing Unit (RHU) system. Current regulations leave too much to interpretation. That can lead to mistakes that return violent inmates to the general population too soon. We must have a rigid system that makes officer safety the top priority — not inmates.

Prosecution of all inmates who assault corrections officers. Right now, this policy is set differently in each county by Pennsylvania’s 67 district attorneys. While many do prosecute violent inmates, some do not. That sends a clear, horrible message to inmates that they can do anything they want without fear of punishment. That is inexcusable, and must end.

Confiscate dangerous items that are being provided to inmates. Metal locks, 14-inch knitting needles, and other items must be removed from prison commissaries and inmate cells. It makes no sense for inmates to have locks in their cells. Not only can they hide items — but those locks can also be used as weapons. Knitting needles can obviously be used as weapons. The commissary list requires a full reevaluation.

We think these ideas are common-sense approaches that will make our state prisons safer for the people who work there.

Jason Bloom is president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association.