Former inmate sues county

Ex-prisoner, 19, alleges he was raped after being housed with sex offenders

A former Blair County Prison inmate is suing the county and its prison board in federal court, contending he was raped in December 2016 after being placed in a cell with two sex offenders.

The inmate is not identified in the civil rights lawsuit because of “privacy concerns,” it was stated.

One of the cellmates, who the inmate said sexually assaulted him, Ralph Leroy Emery, 56, was sentenced to eight to 16 years in a state correctional institution after pleading guilty to rape and involuntary deviate sexual intercourse based on the attack.

The lawsuit names as defendants: Blair County; Hollidaysburg Bor­ough, where the prison is located; the Blair County Prison Board; the prison itself; retired warden Michael Johnston; and several corrections officers who have yet to be identified.

The lawsuit was filed in May in the U.S. District Court in Harris­burg, but based on a request by the county’s attorney, Suzanne B. Merrick of Pittsburgh, it was transferred late last week to the federal court in Johnstown.

The county requested the transfer because the people named in the lawsuit, including the inmate, and the alleged violations of civil rights law, occurred in the Western District of Pennsylvania.

The 19-year-old inmate who is suing stated that when he was admitted to the Blair County Prison on Dec. 18, 2016, he was a pretrial detainee, and he noted that it was his first time behind bars.

The prison, through its assessment process, discovered that he was suffering from mental illness that included bipolar disorder, attention deficit disorder, schizophrenia, autism and post-traumatic stress.

It was initially determined that he was at risk for suicide. He asked for protective custody after being threatened by another inmate.

In response, he stated, prison officials moved him to a cell in the prison’s restrictive housing unit on Block J that includes 16 cells and a dorm housing 15 inmates.

He was assigned to a cell with Emery and another in­mate. The area contained two officers who patrolled the cellblock at 30-minute intervals.

He contends Emery assaulted him twice.

He states in the lawsuit he was attacked again, which was followed by a fight between Emery and his second cellmate.

The fight attracted several officers and the victim was taken to the hospital for examination.

The lawsuit stated officers should have known that he was being sexually abused.

It is also charged that the assaults on him constitute a violation of his due process and that officers and other prison officials showed deliberate indifference “to a pattern and practice of allowing, and at times assisting, sexual abuse to occur, in direct violation of pretrial detainees’ and inmates’ rights under the U.S. Constitution.”

The inmate is asking in excess of $150,000 in money damages.

The assault, he stated, caused him “severe and permanent” injuries such as anxiety, depression and mental anguish.

The county, in its request to have the case transferred, has asked that the lawsuit be dismissed, alleging that the Eighth Amendment bar against cruel and unusual pun­ishment does not apply to pretrial detainees, that civil charges against the prison board and the prison have no merit and that claims against the warden are only a pretext for suing the county.

The county attorney also stated that municipalities are immune from punitive damages.

It asked that any civil pursuit of damages against Hol­lidaysburg be dismissed because the borough does not have authority to manage or control the county prison.

The chairman of the Blair County Prison Board, Judge Daniel J. Milliron, was unavailable for comment Tuesday.

Chief U.S. Magistrate for the Western District Maur­een P. Kelly has given the county until July 20 to answer the complaint.

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