The death of Felix Manus prompted Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper to request an audit of the Erie County Prison by the county’s insurance provider.
The death of a work-release inmate and a $1.1 million settlement in an excessive-force lawsuit have shone a spotlight on the treatment of inmates at the Erie County Prison in recent months.
Erie County officials have also invited some extra scrutiny at the prison.
Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper said she asked the county’s insurance carrier, the Pennsylvania Counties Risk Pool, to conduct an audit of the prison and review the prison’s policies in the wake of Felix L. Manus’ death following an asthma attack during a work-release shift in May.
“Were our procedures correct? I wanted to make sure that they were,” Dahlkemper said. The audit occurred in mid-October, and the results are pending.
“We welcome them in,” said Erie County Prison Warden Kevin Sutter. “We expect that inspection to come back with flying colors.”
Sutter said the recent incidents involving the prison are not signs of unique problems, but symptoms of an environment that has made prisons more dangerous, for inmates and staff, than they have been in the past.
“You’re going to have incidents that occur in any one of these facilities,” Sutter said in a wide-ranging interview with the Erie Times-News. “You do your best to manage it.”
Manus’ death also generated a civil-rights lawsuit that is pending in U.S. District Court in Erie. The Manus family charges that corrections officers delayed medical care to Manus when he suffered the asthma attack during a shift working outdoors near Edinboro on May 30.
His death sparked an internal review by Dahlkemper’s administration and led to a change in the county’s transportation policy for inmates.
The county said two prison employees were disciplined in the wake of Manus’ death but has declined to name the employees or describe the discipline they received. The Erie County District Attorney’s Office announced in September that no criminal charges would be filed in connection with the case.
Erie lawyer John Mizner, who is representing Manus’ family in their lawsuit, said the old policy should not have required corrections officers to weigh when a medical problem was serious enough to require emergency care.
“Anybody that is aware of what happened to Mr. Manus knows that it shouldn’t have happened. The question becomes why did it happen,” Mizner said. “It’s fine and appropriate to have policies and procedures reviewed by third parties, but nothing is more important to the proper operation of the prison than the attitudes and mindsets of the people to whom the inmates are entrusted.”
Dahlkemper said she requested the audit of the prison to have “an independent eye” assess the facility after Manus’ death.
“I’m always deeply troubled when anyone dies at the prison,” Dahlkemper said. “I think we’re always looking at, is there something that should have been done differently or is there something we could do differently in the future?”
Another lawsuit stemming from actions at the prison ended in September in a $1.1 million settlement with a former inmate, 53-year-old Patrick J. Haight. Haight claimed in his lawsuit that he had to be put on life support after an altercation involving as many as 10 corrections officers in May 2017.
One corrections officer was charged with simple assault following the confrontation, but the charge was dismissed at the officer’s preliminary hearing. The officer, Corey Cornelius, was suspended while the charge was pending but was reinstated after its dismissal.
A prison lieutenant and captain also received short-term suspensions but were not charged criminally.
Sutter declined to comment specifically on either incident.
“Staff here are correctional professionals and do their job to the best of their ability every day to keep the public safe,” he said. “There are going to be incidents. It’s just the nature of the environment.”
Changes at the prison
Sutter, who had worked in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections for 19 years, began his tenure as warden of the Erie County Prison in the fall of 2013. The previous year had been marked by scandals involving Erie County Prison personnel.
Ten prison employees were suspended or left their jobs between January 2012 and June 2013 for various infractions, some criminal.
Among the most serious incidents included two corrections officers who, in 2012, received prison sentences for their involvement in the beating of an inmate by other inmates. Also in 2012, a husband and wife, both of whom were corrections supervisors, were fired and charged criminally in connection with a probe of payroll records tampering and missing ammunition. The pair ended their cases by entering a probationary program for first-time offenders.
Events like those have stopped under Sutter, Dahlkemper said.
“Kevin really tightened up the processes and the procedures of how things happen within the prison for those who work there, and that has closed, maybe, the opportunity that somebody might see to do something that isn’t legal or ethical,” Dahlkemper said.
Sutter said he introduced a higher level of accountability to the staff of 154 corrections officers. He has overseen 35 full-time suspensions and 13 terminations during his tenure, he said.
“We try to coach staff and resolve issues before they become bigger,” Sutter said. He said staff grievances have fallen and inmate grievances have also dropped, from 255 in 2013 to 40 so far in 2018.
Sutter also pointed to a reorganization effort he undertook soon after taking over at the prison. Sutter replaced sergeants and corporals, who are part of the union that represents corrections officers, with lieutenants, who are exempt from the union.
The move ensured there were always managers staffing the prison, even on weekends, when there previously hadn’t always been managers present, Sutter said. The sergeants and corporals were absorbed into the shift as officers, he said.
“They weren’t bad supervisors, but them being in the union and not having management there to run the prison was not proper,” Sutter said.
The decision prompted significant pushback, Dahlkemper said. But she credited the move with improving prison operations and preventing continued problems at the prison.
A spokesman for the union that represents the county corrections officers, the Service Employees International Union Local 668, declined to comment for this story.
Sutter also added body cameras in 2017. All lieutenants and captains wear body cameras that can be used to document their interactions with inmates, he said.
Sutter emphasized that there are also greater challenges to incarceration now than there have been in the past.
“The biggest ones right now are the seriously mentally-ill population and the drug-addicted,” he said. “Sometimes they’re very hard to handle. Sometimes we have staff assaulted.”
More than half of the Erie County Prison’s population is seriously mentally ill, Sutter said. Stairways Behavioral Health provides mental-health care inside the prison.
The opioid crisis and the rise of synthetic drugs, such as K2, have created an added strain as more people enter the prison in the throes of addiction, he said.
Sutter implemented a program that allows opioid-addicted inmates to receive a shot of Vivitrol, a medication that curbs opioid cravings, before they leave prison to improve their chances of remaining off drugs after their release. Twenty-seven outgoing inmates have received the shot, he said.
Sutter’s administrative team also developed a special review committee in 2015 to oversee certain cases and meet with inmates who have unusual needs, from pregnancy to a special diet.
Dahlkemper said the prison is a “constant work in progress,” in part because the population changes every day and because of the evolving challenges involved in running the facility.
“I’ve been very satisfied with his performance as the warden,” Dahlkemper said. “I wouldn’t want the job. I don’t think most of us would.”
Madeleine O’Neill can be reached at 870-1728 or by email. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ETNoneill.