Firings, charges shake up SCI Greene
First of Two Parts
Sunday, August 09, 1998
By Mike Bucsko and Bob Dvorchak, Post-Gazette Staff Writers
It was built differently and run differently, having more solitary-confinement cells than any other state prison and a hand-picked nucleus of staff that instituted military traditions, such as saluting fellow officers.
The $82 million, maximum-security State Correctional Institution Greene, near Waynesburg, was touted as the "most secure facility in the state correctional system," the shining star of the six Pennsylvania prisons built in the 1990s and a model for other states for optimum control of inmates.
Its corrections officers developed an esprit de corps and a no-nonsense approach to guarding some of the most hardened criminals in the state, including the highest percentage of inmates on death row.
"We had higher standards than other institutions," said Scott Nickelson, a four-year veteran of the Marine Corps, who was among the first seven officers who went to work at SCI Greene, on Nov. 23, 1993.
"They called us 'The Greene Team,"' he said. "They wanted to establish procedures right away. We were going to be getting the worst inmates in the state. The attitude was going to be, 'We're in charge. We're going to run a tight operation. We're going to make the inmates comply. We're here to protect one another. We're a team."'
But those plans unraveled during four months of turmoil that rocked the foundation at SCI Greene just as surely as mine subsidence has cracked the brick walls of cellblocks on death row.
The state Department of Corrections fired Nickelson and three other guards in May, and 21 others were demoted, suspended or reprimanded because of their treatment of inmates.
The superintendent and one of his deputies were transferred. The new superintendent, Philip Johnson, said he wanted to "restore credibility to the institution and win back staff accountability."
A criminal investigation by the Greene County district attorney found that the guards' actions were not criminal, and none will be charged with assault. But two officers have been charged with falsifying reports against inmates. They face a hearing Aug. 26.
Even though the inquiry has concluded, a former guard told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that it was higher-ranking officers who ordered him to "adjust the attitudes" of some inmates by roughing them up.
Procedures have been changed. Training has been ordered. And the symbols of the old administration are gone, such as the pad up against a brick wall that inmates got to know all too well.
But there are indications that frictions remain, such as a recent attack on an officer by inmates and persistent reports of racial discord.
SCI Greene was conceived during the Democratic administration of Gov. Robert P. Casey, but its law-and-order symbolism fit the anti-crime message of current Republican Gov. Ridge when it opened in January 1994.
The SCI Greene administration of James Price and Ben Varner came from SCI Huntingdon, a prison known for its hard line, as did a cadre of commissioned officers and guards.
Other personnel came from Greene and Fayette counties. Those guards were mostly white men -- Greene County's population is 98 percent white -- who had military experience.
Most of the 1,478 inmates at the prison are Philadelphia or Pittsburgh inner-city blacks or Hispanics, interspersed with white supremacists and other elements that provide a microcosm of society's problems. Johnson acknowledges that Greene was designed for "more notorious" inmates.
Like most prisons, guards and inmates at Greene developed an understanding of how things would run and how sentences would be served. But early on, there were disturbing reports.
Black prisoners recounted instances of racial taunting, and in lawsuits they claimed guards beat them and wrote "KKK" with their blood. Other suits told of dehumanizing treatment, such as guards spitting tobacco juice in the food.
"You got about a 97 percent (93 percent, actually) Caucasian staff and you constantly hear racial slurs," said Major Tillery, 47, of Philadelphia, a former Greene inmate serving life for murder. "Most of them never had to deal with black people before."
Tillery, transferred in September to a prison in Clearfield County, is an example of the "troublesome" inmates sent to SCI Greene. His name is well-known in the Corrections Department's Camp Hill, Cumberland County, headquarters as the lead plaintiff in a 1987 federal civil rights suit that forced the state to spend $30 million to improve the 115-year-old SCI Pittsburgh.
Outsiders as well as insiders described troubling scenarios.
Women visitors said they were subjected to strip searches and forced to remove bras to pass through Greene's highly sensitive metal detector.
Philadelphia lawyer Mary Ennis said she was refused entry to SCI Greene three years ago because metal clasps in her dress set off the detector and she refused to remove the dress to get in to see her client.
Miami lawyer Grisel Ybarra said she, too, was ordered to remove her bra because metal fasteners set off the detector when she attempted to visit a client.
"The place has an Alcatraz mentality," she fumed, saying she endured racial and sexist slurs. "It's like a concentration camp."
Greene officials halted such strip searches earlier this year, unless a visitor had violated rules at another prison, such as bringing in contraband, said Sharon Beerman, assistant to the superintendent.
A former guard sergeant, Jeff Lavia of Etna, said he often heard colleagues use the N-word in dealing with black inmates. But he said that wasn't the worst he witnessed.
Lavia, fired for disobeying an order, once worked in F Block in the restricted housing unit, or RHU -- commonly called "the hole." The four-block RHU is a prison within a prison for inmates who require protective custody or are being held in solitary confinement.
While admitting inmates into the RHU, Lavia said, he was told by officers on the 2-to-10 p.m. shift to "work over" certain prisoners, even though all RHU admissions are videotaped.
"I'd get a phone call from a captain or a lieutenant who'd tell me: 'This guy's been a little bit of a problem. Give him the special treatment. Put it to him a little bit,"' Lavia said.
"I'd say, 'Is that an order, sir?' And he'd answer, 'That's an order, Lavia.'
"I'm not going to lie to you: We waited till we got them stripped down, about 10 feet outside the range of the video, and put a little working-over on them, like we were ordered to do. That's what was expected of us. It was procedure."
Lavia, who has been diagnosed with epilepsy and a central nervous system disorder, has been fighting to regain his job since his dismissal in August 1997. He said his firing was based on a trumped-up report by Lt. Peter Kostingo, whom the Greene County district attorney since has charged with falsifying reports against inmates.
The guards union, Local 3936 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, denies that members abused inmates and says guards only followed management-approved procedure.
"The reports of us beating them, writing KKK with their blood -- that's ridiculous," said William J. Herbert, president of the guards union.
"We aren't the brutal people we're made out to be. We've gotten a raw deal. We want our institution's reputation back."
Life in 'the hole'
The RHU's F Block -- "the hole" -- became the focus of internal and criminal investigations. Inmates were strip-searched and screamed at by guards as they stood naked in front of a concrete wall that later had a cushioned pad fastened to it.
It was the subject of an inquiry in 1996, when Corrections Department investigators looked into how inmates were being processed into the RHU by the officer on duty, Lt. Jon Tustin of Waynesburg. When there was no finding that the procedure was abusive, and no suggestion that it should be changed, Tustin and other guards said they concluded that their methods were acceptable.
"Every one of my supervisors was aware of these in-processings," said Tustin, who joined Nickelson as the first two officers fired in the wake of the latest investigation. "They looked at them (in the prior inquiry). They said that in their minds, this type of force was considered justified.
"So ... the way we were thinking is, that since our supervisors -- captain, major, deputy superintendent and superintendent -- thought we were doing OK, and since our evaluations said that we were doing above-average work, we must be doing OK, and we thought there were no problems."
Nickelson once worked in the RHU as a sergeant and later succeeded Tustin as the officer there. He came to the same conclusion: The methods were sound.
But a second internal investigation was in the works. By then, audio had been added to the videotapes, so supervisors could hear what the inmates were being ordered to do.
The Brandon case
About 8:45 a.m. Nov. 10, Curtis Brandon was in his cell in Greene's D Block, typing a legal document for his cellmate. Brandon said a guard entered his cell and yanked the paper out of the typewriter.
In the next 20 minutes, Brandon said in a prison interview, he was handcuffed, cited for threatening a department employee and disobeying an order, and then taken to the F Block restricted housing unit. There, he later said, he was beaten with nightsticks and choked. The officer who Brandon contends did the choking, George Reposky, was fired in May. That's Brandon's version.
Robert DeBord, an inmate counselor who quit his job in December because he disagreed with prison procedures, said the incident escalated when Brandon asked for a grievance form. DeBord said a sergeant told him that Brandon had been ordered to the RHU.
"I sent him down for an attitude adjustment," DeBord said the sergeant told him. Then, glancing at a clock, the sergeant added, "He ought to be getting it about now."
That conflicts with versions provided by Reposky and other guards in reports to their superiors.
One guard said Brandon "started screaming and kicking" his cell door Nov. 10 after being told that he couldn't go to the prison law library. Then Brandon "ran out of his cell aggressively and in a threatening manner" toward guard Sgt. Joyce Redd.
As a result, he was taken to a side room and handcuffed. Four guards escorted him to the RHU. There's no mention in the report of a guard entering Brandon's cell, as the inmate maintained.
While being processed into the restricted housing unit, Brandon refused orders to put his left hand on his head, face the wall and then keep his hands at his side, according to Reposky's report.
Reposky would not comment when contacted by a reporter, other than to say he had done nothing wrong.
Brandon, who is black, said Reposky, processing him into F Block, repeatedly called him "boy" and once screamed, "Boy, I'll kill you." After the processing, Brandon was seen by a nurse but contends he was refused X-rays.
The next week, Brandon wrote to his aunt, Eloise Ashford of Lancaster, about the incident. She fired off letters to Ridge, Corrections Commissioner Martin Horn and then-Superintendent Varner.
Brandon, 46, a twice-convicted murderer from Wilkinsburg serving a life sentence, spent 85 days in the RHU before he was released Feb. 2.
The Brandon incident and letters, joining a mountain of complaints piling up since the prison opened four years earlier, resulted in a full-scale inquiry into the RHU processing procedure. While focused solely on videotapes of inmates entering "the hole," it put all of Greene's operations under a public microscope.
Inmates end up in F Block because they have done something wrong, whether disobeying an order or fighting. Sometimes, inmates contend, they are sent to "the hole" because guards file false reports accusing them of violating prison rules.
F Block is one of four blocks in the restricted housing unit and is reserved for those on disciplinary custody status. The other blocks in the unit -- G, H and I -- contain death row inmates, prisoners put in isolation for their own protection and hardened criminals in a long-term, highly structured behavior-modification program called the special management unit.
The RHU is separated from the rest of the prison but is accessible by interior walkways; it contains about a fourth of Greene's 1,500 inmates. It is a Level 5 unit, the tightest security in the prison system.
Nearly all RHU inmates are locked up 23 hours; they get an hour outside their cells to exercise. A few are allowed on a work detail, cleaning up the blocks. Most lose all privileges earned in the general population, such as going to the library or school.
In F Block, four guards escort inmates into the processing area. Initially, inmates were told to stand against a concrete wall. Later, Varner had a blue pad hung on it because inmates' heads bouncing off the wall were leaving bloodstains. The pad proved too small, so a larger red pad was installed. In December, the red pad was removed after Corrections Department investigators completed a first round of interviews.
Inmates are strip-searched during processing while surrounded by the four guards, one of whom screams orders as the others hold nightsticks at the ready. Before being stripped to undergo a body-cavity search, inmates must stand on a blanket, face the wall pad and follow orders to remain still.
Roger Buehl, a death row prisoner who spent 90 days in F Block, wrote of the danger of making a false move in "the hole."
"The slightest twitch or hesitation from me would serve as 'justification' for the guards to club me into submission," he wrote in a diary he kept. "Many prisoners do, in fact, get attacked during the strip search party, for no legitimate reason."
Buehl, like Tillery and several other inmates in Greene's maximum-security units, is well-known throughout the corrections system as a "jailhouse lawyer" and prisoner advocate. Convicted of the 1982 killings of a founder of Lockheed Corp., his wife and their housekeeper in Villanova, he was transferred in March from Greene to SCI Pittsburgh.
During a recent interview, he said he had written to Horn and other corrections officials before the SCI Greene inquiry, offering to take a lie-detector test about its excesses. "An inmate in the Department of Corrections has no credibility whatsoever," he said. "Inmates have been talking about this stuff forever, and nothing was done." Greene guards "make up the rules as they go along."
No video proof
The department inquiry relied solely on 36 videotapes of inmate processings into F Block, supplemented by interviews. Those who have seen the videos said they didn't capture any significant examples of physical assaults but did show violations of department regulations about use of force.
But inmates and prisoner advocacy groups contend that beatings are routinely done outside the camera's view throughout the prison. They say that, in other parts of the prison, guards slam handcuffed inmates into walls and against doorways, causing them to fall.
Guards other than Lavia deny striking inmates as punishment, but some admit they could get physical with inmates if required.
"I never touched anyone," Tustin said. "If we wanted to strike somebody up against a concrete wall, we could do that. If we wanted to strike them with a baton, we could do that. But we tried to be as safe as we could. We never even wanted to push anyone up against a mat."
Inmates, of course, have been known to strike guards, too, such as an incident when three prisoners fought three guards last month.
Some inmates say they've experienced other forms of retaliation.
For instance, in mid-May, as Brandon awaited an attorney's visit, guards came to his cell and rummaged through his legal documents.
Then in June, a captain and several guards searched Brandon's cell an hour after a reporter interviewed him. Muccino and his crew confiscated all of Brandon's correspondence with the newspaper and his lawyer.
In a letter of explanation Superintendent Johnson sent the Post-Gazette last month, he said the search was already planned, part of a "previously existing security investigation. ... Admittedly, the timing of the search in question was less than desirable. However, the fact remains (that) the search was predicated upon an investigative plan to ensure internal security of this institution."
Johnson said the confiscated letters were returned before Brandon was transferred last month to the state prison in Camp Hill.
A new regime
SCI Greene inmates contacted several well-known civil rights lawyers before and during the department inquiry in a bid to persuade one to file a class-action lawsuit on their behalf over prison conditions. But the state's discipline and personnel actions amid the probe beat them to the punch.
Varner, who began his career in 1972 as an SCI Huntingdon guard and who became Greene's superintendent in May 1997, was punished in April with a $6,600-a-year pay cut and transfer to SCI Retreat, a medium-security Luzerne County prison. He declined to discuss his time at SCI Greene.
Varner replaced James Price after Price, another alumni of Huntingdon's guard ranks, was named superintendent at Pittsburgh after last year's escape of six inmates there. Price, Greene's first superintendent, did not respond to requests for an interview.
Former guard Lavia said SCI Greene deteriorated after Price departed and Varner took over: "When Price left, that place went downhill. It was a totally hateful place to work. Once he left, the leash was taken off. Varner's attitude was that this is the toughest camp in the state. That's the way it's going to be. As a guard, you were right in somebody's face all the time."
Lavia noted that Varner himself ordered the RHU wall pad. "That's what I couldn't believe. I said to myself, he's just asking for trouble here. He's admitting he's doing something wrong. We know we're banging them against the bricks."
Varner's transfer was significant to prison policy observers.
"It's a pretty extraordinary thing, in my view," said Andrew Shubin, a State College lawyer who has filed numerous civil rights suits on inmates' behalf. "The old (department) always promoted problematic employees, but it's a nice turnaround that Martin Horn has disciplined somebody who has had problems."
Gregory White, the superintendent Price replaced at Pittsburgh, was demoted and sent to Greene as Varner's assistant following the escape at the Woods Run prison. White was transferred again in June, to SCI Greensburg.
Philip Johnson, a native of the North Side who began his career as a Pittsburgh prison guard, is trying to put the pieces back together at Greene. He concedes the challenge but plans no wholesale overhaul.
"I was not sent down here to clean house, swing the axes. It was recognized that there was a problem with the management style." At the same time, "I don't want to sit back too long and do nothing."
One of Johnson's first changes was to revise the "very restrictive" grievance procedure that spurred the Brandon incident last year. The buck had been constantly passed on grievances. When an inmate filed one against an employee, lower-level supervisors passed it up the line to Beerman.
"No one was taking the responsibility," Johnson said. "Consequently, it was going straight to the superintendent's assistant."
Beerman, inundated with grievances, changed the process to require that inmates complete a grievance request slip before getting a grievance form. Inmates say guards often refused their requests for such slips, so they couldn't file grievances.
When Johnson took over in May, he changed the policy, saying, "the whole system itself did not work." Grievance forms are available in boxes in the general population blocks and by request in the RHU.
Johnson also expanded the list of items that can be purchased by inmates in administrative custody in the RHU. And he ordered legal material for death row inmates to be stored in their blocks, instead of in another part of the RHU, and let inmates have access to legal material once a week rather than monthly.
RHU guards have been told to temper commands during strip searches and be more patient. Johnson spoke with each guard about department policies, especially regarding use of force.
"I've addressed every shift at roll call about what my personal philosophy of the institution is," he said. "If we go by the (department's use of force) policy, there won't be any problems. There aren't any gray areas about when force can be used."
Johnson is reluctant to discuss what happened at Greene before he arrived but said he has reviewed some RHU videos. He has no problem with discipline handed out by his bosses in Camp Hill. "My position is to move this institution forward. I can't continue to second-guess decisions that have already been made."
Many guards and inmates have known Johnson for years, mainly his 10 1/2 at SCI Pittsburgh. He plans to keep inmates' respect by dealing with them honestly.
"If you're honest with the inmates and tell them what you can do and tell them what you can't do, they'll respect that. It's not our job to punish them further than what the courts have already done."