Pa. House moves to protect guards by cracking down on prisoners

The Riverside Correctional Facility on State Road in Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The Riverside Correctional Facility on State Road in Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The state House is moving a raft of bills aimed at making guards safer by, among other things, establishing longer sentences for prisoners who assault staff.

Critics, however, argue there are less punitive ways to protect prison guards.

Under one bill, prisoners convicted of assaulting guards would get a five-year sentence. Another would lower the bar for defining assault by an prisoner. A third would let county corrections officers carry guns to and from prison, and a fourth would let officers testify at parole hearings.

Another is dubbed Markie’s Law, named for an eight-year-old boy stabbed to death in July by a recently paroled felon.

It would delay parole for prisoners who assault people, try to escape, smuggle contraband, or retaliate against witnesses. Republican Rob Kauffman (R-89), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said it’s necessary.

“Our corrections officers are, very frankly, under attack every day,” he said in a hearing on the bills.

But ACLU Legal Director Elizabeth Randol said this punishment-first approach doesn’t address the justice system’s underlying issues, like racial inequity, uneven public defense, and insufficient mental health treatment.

“Their knee-jerk, constant response to any problem is to just pile on the charges,” she said. “We have to look at the very beginning of the system and see how it is, what that pipeline is.”

The bills now go to the full House for consideration.

Senate GOP Leader Jake Corman (R-34) said he’ll probably support them in his chamber. A spokesman for Democratic Governor Tom Wolf said he’s still reviewing the measures.

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