State inspection of Luzerne County prison looms in wake of elevator deaths

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - | July 28th, 2016 6:06 pm

WILKES-BARRE — Luzerne County’s prison must undergo a grueling inspection next month, but it was already in the works before the recent deaths of an inmate and correctional officer.

The state Department of Corrections is required by law to complete inspections to determine if county prisons comply with a range of state regulations. The 2016 inspection initially was set to start this week but was rescheduled to late August because county prison officials are focused on issues related the two deaths, said state corrections department spokeswoman Susan McNaughton.

A criminal investigation concluded the fifth-floor elevator door at the prison on Water Street in Wilkes-Barre immediately gave way at the base when inmate Timothy Darnell Gilliam Jr., 27, pulled correctional officer Kristopher D. Moules, 25, backwards and hit the door on July 18. The men fell 59 feet and 1 inch down an elevator shaft to their death, said the investigation, which was completed by state police and the county district attorney and coroner offices.

While stressing safety concerns at the aging prison will be addressed, County Manager C. David Pedri has called for the revival of plans to build a new prison with a more efficient and safer layout.

McNaughton said her department’s inspection oversight authority over county prisons is limited to requirements in a state law known as “Title 37” that spells out mandates involving both inmates and staff.

These inspections can occur every other year, instead of annually, if the state concludes a county prison complies with all minimum requirements.

The state exercised this waiver for Luzerne County’s prison in 2015 based on its positive inspection the previous year, McNaughton said.

The department does not have daily operational or investigative control over county prisons because they are independently operated and funded by counties, she said.

The corrections department investigators typically interview staff and inmates, check medication counts, inventory and food preparation. They observe workers and review reports to ensure safety and security procedures are enforced, officials said.

Several county officials have called for a review of all prison protocols in light of the recent deaths.

The inspectors also will observe and document visible building deterioration and maintenance issues, such as cracks in walls and safety problems in an inmate shower, but they don’t assess compliance with construction or engineering standards, McNaughton said.

“It’s not like they’ll be in there pushing on doors to inspect them,” she said.

Other investigation

County officials say they reported the two deaths to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, commonly known as OSHA, but the workplace safety agency said it cannot get involved.

“OSHA does not have jurisdiction in this case. The officer was a county employee, and they are covered by the state of Pennsylvania,” said spokesperson Joanna Hawkins.

The state Department of Labor and Industry handles elevator and boiler inspections and also has authority to investigate a prison’s compliance with the General Safety Law, or “Title 34,” which spells out workplace health and safety requirements for public employees.

This law requires establishments to be “constructed, equipped, arranged, operated and conducted so as to provide reasonable and adequate protection for the life, limb, safety and morals of all persons employed therein,” the department said.

State Labor and Industry spokesman David Eckelmann said Thursday his department is conducting an investigation of the county prison but declined to elaborate.

“It might or might not include the General Safety Law, but we don’t comment on ongoing investigations,” he said.

Pedri confirmed the department has revisited the prison to examine the elevator, which was installed in 1994, but said he was not aware of any other labor department investigation. The department has deemed the elevator inoperable until repairs are completed, and the county is developing a scope of work, he said.

The elevator had a valid inspection certificate at the time of the deaths. The state Department of Labor and Industry conducted an inspection of the elevator in April and found only a minor “housekeeping” deficiency that was corrected by staff, Pedri has said.

The state Department of Labor and Industry also conducts Uniform Construction Code (UCC) inspections when prisons are constructed or remodeled, and issues occupancy certificates, Eckelmann said. The Water Street facility was built in 1887 and renovated in 1987 to add the five-story tower where the two deaths occurred.

Mark Rockovich, the county’s new correctional services division head, said he welcomes the upcoming state corrections department inspection.

“They look at the entire operation,” he said. “I think the inspection helps us realize when a change or improvement is needed.

“I don’t look at the inspection as a negative or bad thing.”

A copy of the last inspection report was not immediately available. A public information request seeking the prison’s last inspection is still pending. McNaughton said the state won’t release inspection reports unless a county refuses to do so. She said the reports are examined before their public release, in order to redact sensitive information.

Officials say the Luzerne County prison in Wilkes-Barre, which saw the deaths of both a corrections officer and an inmate in a “freak accident” July 18, will undergo its annual state inspection next month. say the Luzerne County prison in Wilkes-Barre, which saw the deaths of both a corrections officer and an inmate in a “freak accident” July 18, will undergo its annual state inspection next month. Aimee Dilger | Times Leader file photo

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

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