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Warden Suspended in Wake of Prison Guards’ Charges About Riots

November 2, 1989

CAMP HILL, Pa. (AP) _ The warden of the state prison where 123 people were hurt during two nights of riots was suspended after guards charged officials did nothing about broken cell locks before the second night of upheaval.

Corrections Commissioner David S. Owens Jr. suspended Robert Freeman, the prison’s superintendent, on Wednesday. But Owens said he ″will not publicly disclose or confirm the alleged facts in order to preserve Superintendent Freeman’s due process rights and to maintain the integrity of the ongoing investigation.″

The suspension was announced two hours after The Associated Press reported that guards said inmates could go on a second rampage because officials failed to fix broken control boxes after the first night of riots.

More than 15 correctional officers told AP the prison administration was alerted, but ignored the problem.

Several guards at the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill also said officials lied about what time they had secured the prison after the first night of riots, Oct. 25. They added that the administration ignored guards’ reports that some inmates were telling them a riot was planned.

Corrections Department spokeswoman Sherri Cadeaux maintained Wednesday that the medium-security prison was under control when officials said it was: at 10 p.m. The guards contended some inmates were still loose hours after that.

Another department spokesman, Kenneth Robinson, would not say whether the information revealed in Wednesday’s AP story had any bearing on Freeman’s suspension.

Freeman has an unlisted phone number and could not be reached for comment at the prison Wednesday night.

The fiery rioting left more than a dozen buildings destroyed. Thirteen prison staffers were held hostage at various points during the two riots.

Sgt. Richard Gavin said he pointed out the broken lock control panels to officials early in the morning, before the second riot. He said he asked his supervisor for 43 locks to secure the inmates in his area and received 19.

The control panels - known as lock, switch or rod boxes - are 10 to 12 feet long and run the length of each tier above the cells, guards said.

During the first round of rioting, inmates removed metal covers over the boxes, the guards said. On the second night, inmates reached out of their cells and released a 2-inch lever in each box to free themselves.

Gavin said he showed several officials inmates could reach up and release the lever.

″That’s what we kept complaining about,″ Gavin said. ″It would really blow you away if you were inside and I could show you how simple it was.″

At 10 a.m. Oct. 26, Gavin said, he was told to go home because ″I was not needed.″ He said the remaining locks had not arrived.

The second riot started that night at 7 p.m., when prisoners got out of their cells as the evening meal was served. Officials didn’t regain control until after 9 a.m. Friday.

James E. Kraft, a guard with 13 years’ experience, said the prison was ″not secured for one second.″

″All they (inmates) had to do was reach out of those doors and pop a switch,″ Kraft said.

Some guards said they filed reports two weeks before the riot, quoting inmates who had warned about the coming trouble.

Prison spokesman John A. Palakovich said he could not comment on the allegations because the investigation is pending.

During the first night of rioting, the administration said the prison was secured at 10 p.m. Oct. 25.

″They lied,″ Gavin said. ″I was personally there until they escorted inmates into the blocks until 2 in the morning.″

Palakovich stood by the official statement that the institution was secured at 10 p.m.

Ms. Cadeaux, the prison spokeswoman, said prison officials made clear at the time that inmates were still being escorted to their cells. But she stressed that officials were in control at 10 p.m.

Kraft said neither the inmates nor their cells were thoroughly searched after the first riot. Other guards backed up his story.

When the riots first broke out, the prison located 5 miles west of Harrisburg was nearly 45 percent over capacity, with 2,600 inmates in a 52- acre complex intended for 1,820.

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