Prison expert: Problematic evidence ‘tells you there is something going on’ at Dauphin County Prison

Prison expert: Problematic evidence ‘tells you there is something going on’ at Dauphin County Prison

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — It’s not just perception, a top expert says: Dauphin County Prison really does have more problems than comparable facilities.

“From what I know about what’s going on there — the the lack of oversight and accountability, some of the deaths that have occurred there over the past few years — it seems to me that the situation there is worse than at other county jails in the state of Pennsylvania and indeed in the United States,” said Jay D. Aronson, founder and director of the Center for Human Rights Science and a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Three Dauphin County inmates have died in the past four months. In one case, someone allegedly smuggled drugs — which led to a death — into the prison. Late last week, a corrections officer was charged with assaulting a woman who had just arrived after being arrested.

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Aronson, who also co-authored the 2023 book “Death in Custody,” said prison statistics in general are notoriously problematic, so “we really don’t have great data to definitively say we absolutely know [Dauphin’s] is the highest death rate” among its peers.

But Aronson said based on available data, plus extensive reporting funded by the Pulitzer Center, including by Penn Live, he’s confident the frequent reports of issues aren’t only a result of higher-than-average scrutiny compared to at other prisons and jails.

Aronson said his lack of confidence was also rooted in the county’s decision not to release a report it commissioned for more than a year after the report was complete.

“That tells you that there is something going on there that the county doesn’t want you to know about,” Aronson said.

The county ultimately released the report in November 2023.

John Hargreaves, a Harrisburg-based volunteer director for the Pennsylvania Prison Society — and long a critic of the prison — said he’s cautiously hopeful, based on very recent developments, that conditions at the prison could finally improve.

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Justin Douglas (D), who took office as Dauphin County’s newest commissioner this year and who serves as vice chair of the prison board, “ran on the platform of reforming dauphin county prison, and now he’s stepping to the plate, and the community’s got to put pressure on him to see he follows through on his commitments,” Hargreaves said, adding he’s encouraged by Douglas’s performance so far.

Douglas didn’t return a message Monday but said in a statement Friday — following the arrest for excessive force of a corrections officer — “our aim is to foster a correctional setting that is safe, just and respectful.” Douglas is scheduled to testify Tuesday at a Senate hearing about prison deaths.

Another cause for optimism, according to Hargreaves: The decision by the board at a meeting last week to reduce the minimum age for corrections officers and guards to 18 to try to alleviate staffing shortages, which Hargreaves said are the root cause of other problems.

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“Their lack of personnel there is still causing the men and women that are incarcerated there to stay in their cells all the time,” Hargreaves said. “When you … don’t have exercise and people locked in their cells, there’s going to be frustration, and there’s going to be violence.”

The problem with that for the rest of society, according to Hargreaves? Because most people in prison eventually leave, and no one should want angry, mistreated former prisoners rejoining society.

“We should head that off so that does not happen when they come home to their neighbors and perhaps recreate the same crimes for which they are maybe incarcerated,” Hargreaves said.

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