At Senate committee hearing, calls for leadership change at DOC

“We’ve asked for a representative of the Department of Corrections to join us. Is there a representative here today? Is there anybody. But, they declined.”

The question was rhetorical from Senate Law and Public Safety Committee Chair Linda Greenstein. The committee was hearing testimony on physical and sexual abuse of inmates at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women. Had the DOC sent a representative, they would have heard damning testimony that suggests a facility rank with abuse of inmates by a group of corrections officers and a department unable, or unwilling, to put a stop to it.

“These inmates are powerless and at the mercy of their jailers. We can only imagine the nightmare of being confined to a cell and having a guard come in to commit rape, or being pulled into a maintenance closet to be attacked,” said Greenstein to open the hearing. “Inmates have also told of being unable to resist an officer’s demands for sex because of the fear of retribution at the hands of those same officers.”

The reports go back to 2010 with corrections officers fired but never charged, others awaiting trial for sexual assault, and earlier this month, another corrections officer was charged with official misconduct and sexual assault. Thursday’s testimonies came from prison reform and civil rights advocates, the union representing corrections officers and most dramatically, victims of abuse.

“During my imprisonment at Edna Mahan I was sexually harassed. I was sexually abused on more than one occasion,” recounted former inmate Cynthia Cupe. “My complaints were ignored. The last incident occurred Aug. 14, 2014.” 

The allegations were terrible enough, but the charge that complaints fell on deaf ears had some committee members seething. The union representing the corrections officers said they won’t provide assistance to officers who have substantial evidence against them, but said they’ve tried to be part of the solution, only to have their efforts thwarted by indifference at the Department of Corrections.

“The issues Edna Mahan present paint a clear picture of a failed administration,” testified PBA Local 105 Vice President Sean Sprich. “Commissioner Lanigan, after hearing of these issues, has done nothing to correct the situation. Has he enhanced the staff? Has he evaluated the causes of their issues and instituted solutions such as proper training? The answer is no. Has he selected qualified and competent administrators? The answer, in our opinion, is no.”

DOC Commissioner Gary Lanigan, who has not spoken on this issue since he appeared before a Senate committee last year, was up for confirmation earlier this month, but his hearing was suddenly cancelled for what was called “an internal issue.” His hearing has not been rescheduled, and from the sound of some senators, probably should not be.

“This has been going on for a number of years,” said Republican member Kip Bateman. “When they had the first complaint, that’s when they should have started their investigation. I know the commissioner is coming up before the Senate Judiciary Committee and let me tell you, unless we get some answers, I think he’s going to have problems getting confirmed because this is an abuse that should not happen.”

“I heard Sen. Bateman’s comments and I echo them 100 percent,” added Democrat Patrick Diegnan. “There have to be consequences to what’s going on.”

Democratic Sen. Nellie Pou also said policy and leadership changes were due. The Governor’s Office is trying to get to the bottom of the issue, which predates this administration. As for the DOC? On Thursday, at least, no comment.