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Chester County Press

Opinion: Restricted housing units help keep Pa. corrections officers, inmates safe

03/21/2024 11:52AM ● By John Eckenrode

Working in state prisons as a corrections officer for a quarter century, it’s safe to say I’ve pretty much seen it all.

That’s why it’s concerning to me, and thousands of officers, to see legislation under consideration in Harrisburg that would eliminate or scale back the use of restricted housing units (RHUs) in our state prison system for inmates. Simply put, it’s our lives on the line, as well as the lives of inmates who are preyed upon by others.

Some refer to RHUs as solitary confinement, but the Hollywood images we’ve all seen are far from modern reality. What is reality is the very real danger inmates in RHUs pose.

Here’s a sample of inmates at SCI-Benner who were recently housed in the RHU for a number of dangerous incidents, including:

  • An inmate convicted of first-degree murder who committed an assault.
  • An inmate convicted of rape who engaged in sex acts or sodomy on another inmate.
  • An inmate convicted of robbery who committed an assault and threatened an employee.
  • An innate convicted of kidnapping to inflict injury or terror who was placed in the RHU for fighting.
  • An inmate with a drug-related conviction who committed sexual harassment and indecent exposure.

In one of these cases, an inmate was charged with assault while he was in the RHU. When returning from an outdoor RHU exercise area, the inmate headbutted an officer who was escorting him back to his cell. Several officers were needed to end the situation, but multiple times the inmate yelled, “Every time I come out, I’m gonna kill all of you m-----.”

If RHUs are limited in any way, Pennsylvania will be sending a clear signal to inmates that it’s open season on officers, prison employees and other inmates. Even RHUs cannot fully guarantee the safety of others.

As an officer and later sergeant assigned to an RHU for eight years, I was “gassed” by an RHU inmate. Gassing occurs when an inmate throws his or her bodily fluids or feces at an officer. Please understand, horrific offenses like this can be worse than violent assaults. Officers must undergo constant testing for communicable diseases and possibly be separated from their families. The kind of stress that can be placed on a human being — and his or her family — can be unbearable. We’re forced to take medications because of exposure to bloodborne pathogens and repeatedly test for HIV and hepatitis.

Pennsylvania recently marked six years since the murder of Pennsylvania Corrections Officer Sgt. Mark Baserman. His murder happened at SCI-Somerset, and it could’ve been avoided. Baserman and a fellow officer made repeated requests to have a dangerous inmate placed in the RHU. That never happened, and tragically, the inmate would later murder Sgt. Baserman.

Limiting the use of RHUs has proven to increase violence in prisons. On April 1, 2022, New York passed a law that severely limits, or in some cases eliminates, the ability to place inmates in RHUs. In the first two weeks, six officers and a sergeant were assaulted at a state prison in Elmira.

One year later, statistics showed prison violence skyrocketed by 33%. According to numbers maintained by the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), there were 3,113 total assaults recorded in New York’s correctional facilities, up from 2,375 assaults the previous year when RHUs were in use.

We do not want to see what’s happening in New York repeated here in Pennsylvania. By keeping our RHU system intact, state lawmakers will be protecting countless officers, prison staff and inmates.

John Eckenrode is the president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association. For more information, see: