Lackawanna County officials, prison reform advocates differ on letting voters decide on changes at jail

·4 min read

Aug. 15—A public advocacy group says it collected enough valid signatures on petitions to put solitary confinement reform at the Lackawanna County Prison on the Nov. 8 election ballot.

The county's top lawyer says the board of elections will likely reject the ballot question. Local prison regulation the way PA Stands Up proposes would violate state law, county solicitor Frank Ruggiero said. County elections officials are also still determining if the petitions have enough valid signatures, he said.

Relying on a public referendum provision in the Lackawanna County Home Rule Charter, PA Stands Up says it got more than enough signatures on petitions to sharply restrict solitary confinement use at the county jail, said Ashleigh Strange, director of narrative and communication for the group, which has a local affiliate, NEPA Stands Up.

"The question doesn't advocate taking a wrecking ball to solitary confinement," Strange said. "It makes it so that it's actually rehabilitative, which was not what the system is now."

The amendment would limit solitary confinement to: periods of prisonwide lockdowns; no more than 24 hours if a medical professional determines an inmate is a danger to themselves, other inmates or detainees or prison employees; or if an inmate requests solitary confinement for safety reasons. An inmate could challenge confinement in court if the prison violates the limits.

"What we heard from people — with very, very few exceptions — is that they don't want people to be unnecessarily tortured, and even more so that they don't want people to be tortured at all," Strange said. "And if there are other ways to do this, then that's what we want to do."

In 2020, a United Nations official likened solitary confinement at prisons across the United States to "a state-sanctioned policy aimed at purposefully inflicting severe pain or suffering, physical or mental, which may well amount to torture."

PA Stands Up's similar effort to limit solitary confinement in Lehigh County failed to gather enough signatures, Strange said.

Ruggiero said the group's Lackawanna County petitions are invalid, certainly for one reason and maybe another.

State law prohibits home rule charters from dealing with matters already regulated by state law. County prisons and prison boards are already regulated by state law, Ruggiero said.

Second, the group collected 13,665 signatures on petitions, but the county is still checking if all the petition circulators live in Pennsylvania, Ruggiero said. The group needed 8,396 signatures, the equivalent of 10% of ballots cast in the last governor election in 2018.

Initially, Ruggiero thought the circulators had to be county residents, but he later corrected himself and said a 2017 change in state law altered that to allow state residents to circulate.

Strange said the group's legal team reviewed the question and proposed amendment.

"This is something that can be handled by the county and their voters, and it was done in Allegheny County," Strange said. "We did our homework and we're prepared to defend it."

Allegheny County voters overwhelmingly adopted similar restrictions in the May 18, 2021, primary election. That vote amended the county code, not the home rule charter.

Lackawanna County Prison Warden Tim Betti said the prison would comply with new restrictions if voters approved them, but he defended current practices. In the most egregious case, an inmate who behaved violently, the prison will place that inmate in restrictive housing — separated from other inmates — for up to 21 days with only one hour a day outside the cell, Betti said.

He said he thinks the advocates assumed a lot about the way the prison operates without talking to him. The system has a process for appealing discipline issued for violating county rules.

"I'm the best version of a friendly warden for this group that they might find," said Betti, a former assistant drug and alcohol treatment coordinator at the prison. "A lot of wardens will come from the security ranks, and you bring your history with you. And my history is treatment-oriented. So I'm very treatment-friendly. And I get what they're saying here. But I think they jumped to a conclusion that the Lackawanna County Prison is ... torturing."

Prisons serve three main purposes — punishment, rehabilitation and safety of the public and inmates, Betti said. Having the ability to isolate inmates for longer than 24 hours is a must, he said.

"We have to have that kind of an option inside these walls, when we have somebody not following rules and putting other people's safety in danger. We have a responsibility to protect the rest of the inmate population from this person who's acting out," Betti said.

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