Blair concedes former inmate has grounds for complaint

Young man claims he was sexually assaulted by cellmate

Blair County has filed a petition admitting that a former inmate in its prison may have presented facts that will allow a federal lawsuit to move forward on one charge but has asked a U.S. magistrate judge to dismiss most of the other claims.

The inmate, who is referred to only by his initials, states that county prison officials, including a former warden and four corrections officers, failed to protect him from sexual assaults that occurred at least three times in December 2016.

The incidents, including rape and involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, occurred, according to the lawsuit, when the inmate was placed in a cell with two known sex offenders.

The cell contained a bunk bed and a mattress on the floor.

The victim of the sexual assault, 19 years old at the time, was in prison for the first time awaiting trial, and he sought protection from another inmate in the general population who had threatened him.

Prison officials moved him to the Restricted Housing Unit and placed him with two sex offenders.

The man charged with the rape and involuntary deviate sexual intercourse of his cellmate was identified as Ralph Leroy Emery, 57.

Emery was sentenced earlier this year to serve eight to 16 years in a state correctional facility for the offenses. He is incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution at Rockview.

The lawsuit names Blair County and Hollidaysburg Borough, the Blair County Prison, the Prison Board, the warden at the time of the incidents and four corrections officers who were on duty during the time the assaults took place.

The county, through its attorney, Suzanne B. Merrick of Pittsburgh, has asked that Hollidaysburg be removed from the lawsuit, pointing out that under Pennsylvania law, boroughs do not have the authority to operate countywide correctional facilities.

Hollidaysburg, where the prison is located, is a separate municipal body from the county, and, according to Merrick, should either be removed from the lawsuit, or the lawsuit should be amended to emphasize that Hollidaysburg has no part in operating the prison.

The county is asking federal court to dismiss the civil complaint against the former Warden, Michael M. Johnston, pointing out he is named only because he was in charge of the facility when the incidents occurred, and noting there are no facts in the lawsuit to show the sexual assault occurred as a result of any policy he implemented, or that he was even aware of any possible risk to the young inmate being placed in the Restricted Housing Unit cell.

The court is also being asked to dismiss a claim for punitive damages, and questions whether the victim, as a pretrial detainee, can sue the county under the Eighth Amendment constitutional bar against cruel and unusual punishment.

However, when it comes to a federal civil rights violation, the county petition stated, “Defendants concede that (the victim) alleges sufficient facts to support a ‘failure to protect’ claim under the 14th Amendment against the four (corrections officers) in as much as the (officers) are alleged to have had sufficient fore-knowledge of Emery’s sexual aggression to be liable for failing to protect … from the alleged rapes.”

The names of the four officers at this point are not listed. The are referred to only as “John Does.”

The county, however, contends that the claims in the lawsuit do not rise to the level of a “state created danger,” under which the county, in its policies, created the danger that resulted in harm to the inmate.

The lawsuit filed by Joseph Guzzardo of Newtown stated that county prison officials, upon screening the inmate during his admission to the prison, discovered he suffered from several mental health conditions: bipolar disorder; attention deficit disorder; schizophrenia; autism and post traumatic stress, having been a victim of sexual and physical assault by two family members.

As a first-time inmate, he also was considered a high risk for suicide, the lawsuit stated.

It is charged in the lawsuit that he suffered violations of his constitutional rights to substantive due process and the bar against cruel and unusual punishment.

It is claimed that the physical and emotional harm to the young inmate was “foreseeable,” and that the defendants “created an opportunity for danger which otherwise would not have existed.”

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

U.S. District Judge Kim R. Gibson in Johnstown and Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Maureen P. Kelly in Pittsburgh on Monday were assigned to the case.

The lawsuit was initially filed in U.S. Middle District of Pennsylvania but was transferred in July to the Western District.

Kelly will conduct the initial review of the case.

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