Guards gave female inmates cigarettes then pressured them into sexual favors.
Some women were forced to undress for prison employees.
Other female prisoners say they were raped while in solitary confinement.
And, if the inmates reported any of this, they would lose privileges or be beaten.
These are some of the allegations being investigated in Pennsylvania’s Lackawanna County, where a new federal lawsuit describes officials engaging in a widespread cover-up of county prison employees sexually abusing incarcerated women.
The appointment of a special investigator on Friday by the board overseeing the county prison follows the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court describing sexual abuse and misconduct in the county’s prison allegedly perpetuated since the 1990s.
“Female inmates at the Lackawanna County Prison have been continuously subjected to institutional sexual assault for over a decade, and officials at the prison and in the county have had knowledge of these assaults,” wrote attorney Matthew Comerford in the suit against 39 defendants including prison guards, employees of the district attorney’s office and county commissioners.
Complaints from female inmates were routinely ripped up, and a prison guard, according to the suit, deleted video footage that purportedly captured evidence of a sexual assault.
The suit alleges a conspiracy reaching far beyond the prison walls to shield the attackers from prosecution. For example, the suit contends that Lackawanna County Commissioner Patrick O’Malley knew about guards sexually abusing female inmates and did not attempt to change policy or discipline any of the prison employees.
O’Malley, the suit contends, even told one of the prison employees that an investigation was looming as part of a “cover-up and conspiracy” on behalf of county and prison officials, attorney Comerford claims.
And among prison brass, speaking out against the abusers was discouraged, the suit says.
“A culture of silence exists and has existed at Lackawanna County Prison in which both inmate and corrections officers were expected to not report misconduct of corrections officers,” Comerford wrote in the suit.
The accusation that the county’s top officials knew about and hid the alleged sexual abuse at the prison is “patently false,” O’Malley’s attorney James Doherty wrote in response motion.
Moreover, Doherty argued, the suit is “rife with falsity and unsupportable scandalous, impertinent and irrelevant allegations.”
With allegations stretching from 1998 to 2016, the suit is “purposely long on scandalous and irrelevant allegations, but, unfortunately for the civil justice system and any true victims, short on allegations of timely compensable personal injuries,” Doherty wrote, noting that many of the allegations exceed Pennsylvania’s two-year statute of limitations for personal injury claims.
A version of the lawsuit was filed in July on behalf of one female inmate, but this week’s amended suit added three more female inmate plaintiffs, a host of new defendants and scores of additional allegations.
One of the prison guards named as a defendant, Joseph Black, pleaded guilty in September to sexually assaulting female inmates and was given a minimum of three years in state prison.
Six unnamed guards were placed on administrative leave in June, the Scranton Times-Tribune reported.
Calls requesting comment from county officials, prison officials and the plaintiff’s attorney were never returned.