Numbers highlight use of restraints at Luzerne County prison

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - [email protected]
Luzerne County Prison -

Now-deceased Luzerne County inmate Shaheen Mackey was being restrained when correctional officers discovered he needed medical attention last week, raising questions about when and how often the method is deployed.

The use of force and/or restraints to subdue inmates has been on the rise in the county prison system compared to years ago — a trend officials have blamed largely on an increase in confrontational and aggressive inmates and those suffering from mental health issues and the effects of drug withdrawal.

From 2012 to 2014, the annual number of county prison cases involving force and/or restraints ranged from 13 to 56, according to state Department of Corrections statistics.

The number started increasing in 2015, when 90 cases were reported. There were 115 cases in 2016 and 81 last year, the statistics show.

In the Mackey case, a county release said correctional officers were called to his cell block due to a report he was behaving aggressively, and they were forced to restrain him to “defuse the situation.” Prison staffers administered CPR and summoned an ambulance when they discovered he needed medical attention, the county said. Mackey, 41, died two days later at Wilkes-Barre General Hospital, and an investigation is pending.

Use of force

State law requires county prisons to track and annually report the number of times force and restraints are used beyond the routine moving, escorting and transport of inmates.

This reporting mandate evolved from the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment,” which has been legally interpreted to allow excessive force when necessary in a good-faith effort to keep or restore discipline. Restraints also may be necessary to protect inmates from harming themselves, officials have said.

Restraint chairs are the method most frequently deployed at the county prison. The county release did not specify if Mackey was placed in a chair, and county officials said they are not commenting further on specifics at this time due to the pending investigation.

The chairs, which harness an inmate in a seat, were used 51 times in the county prison system last year, the state statistics show.

County Correctional Services Division Head Mark Rockovich has said inmates are checked by medical staff when they are in restraint chairs to ensure there are no problems with restricted circulation or other health issues.

Physical force — with or without restraints — was documented in 33 of the 81 cases last year, the statistics show.

A stun device was used once last year. The number of uses of other specific restraints listed in 2017: handcuffs, 43; pepper spray, 21; and shackles, 20.

Pregnant inmates were restrained seven times last year, the report states.

Strict protocol and training are required for all use of force and restraints, Rockovich has said.

Call for correction

The mother and sister of Tricia Cooper, a county prison inmate who died from suicide last July, said Monday they sympathize with Mackey’s family.

Carol Moss, Cooper’s mother, said she is “heartbroken” for Mackey’s relatives as her family nears the one-year anniversary of “losing our loved one at the same facility.”

“Circumstances were different, but incidents speak volumes,” Moss wrote in an email.

Moss and her daughter, Tara Cooper, said they are still unsuccessfully pushing to obtain answers on what happened with the help of their Kingston attorney, Eugene Sperazza.

“For the same facility to have all these incidents, obviously there’s something seriously wrong with that facility,” Tara Cooper said.

Deaths at facility

Three female inmates have died from hangings deemed suicides since last June: Brooke Griesing on June 8, 2017; Cooper on July 25; and Hailey Povisil on Jan. 9.

The July 7 death of Joan Rosengrant was ruled accidental; it was caused by the combined effect of prescription drugs complicated by her unspecified physical condition, officials determined.

There were two deaths at the prison on July 18, 2016, when the fifth-floor prison elevator door swung open at the base as inmate Timothy Darnell Gilliam Jr., 27, fell backward and hit the door, pulling 25-year-old correctional officer Kristopher Moules with him, an investigation found.

According to investigators, Gilliam had started a heated discussion with Moules because the inmate was upset he had to walk up a flight of stairs instead of riding in the elevator after exercising. The encounter turned physical when Moules attempted to handcuff the inmate, investigators said.

County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis had concluded Moules responded appropriately by asking Gilliam to step away from the 37 other inmates on the block to attempt to resolve the grievance and prevent the situation from escalating.

For more on the Mackey case, click here.

Luzerne County Prison County Prison

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

[email protected]

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.