York County Prison must comply with new federal rules against sexual abuse and harassment, but the county's top legal adviser is concerned changes in the Prison Rape Elimination Act could spur frivolous lawsuits because it includes voyeurism as an offense.
The federal law was first passed in 2003. York County Acting Solicitor Don Reihart said changes to the law amount to a "zero tolerance" policy that gives prisoners a chance to say their civil rights were violated "because someone was looking at them."
He said he's troubled that voyeurism - getting sexual gratification from watching or secretly watching people, especially when naked - could be a legal quagmire.
"That means if you look at someone under the wrong circumstances, you have a problem," Reihart said, adding that it includes when people are performing bodily functions.
There could be times when prison guards are watching prisoners because they're acting in the best interest of security, Reihart said.
"Voyeurism makes it a form of abuse to look at an inmate who is undressed under certain circumstances," he said.
For example, he said a guard could be watching a prisoner shower because he or she is "concerned something is happening that shouldn't happen."
"And there is nothing wrong with that," he said. "Good supervision sometimes requires that, but the prisoner could turn around and say, 'You're making me uncomfortable.'"
Warden not concerned: The rules apply to everyone who enters a prison, including staff, visitors and prisoners. York County's prison board had to approve the changes during a meeting Tuesday because it houses federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement prisoners, Reihart said.
Under county policy, any complaints would be reviewed by an internal complaint review board before a suit could be filed.
"The problem is there are plenty of fictitious suits that are filed, and all this does is give an opportunity to have mischief created by some of the people in the prison," he said.
But while Reihart said he's concerned about false allegations, warden Mary Sabol said she doesn't think it'll be an issue.
She said guards aren't "in the practice" of watching prisoners when they're using the facilities, and would only do so if the prisoner were taking a long time or acting suspiciously.
There hasn't been a successful lawsuit filed against the prison since she became warden in 2008, she said.
Taking complaints: Reihart said prisoners file about 3,000 complaints per year, but most of them are funneled through the internal review system and settled.
One inmate has filed hundreds of complaints, "which he was doing, we believe, as a matter of harassment," Reihart said.
Most complaints are settled through action, such as when prison staff realized several years ago that they weren't giving a Jewish man from Russia, who ate kosher meals, enough calories per day, he said. Staff started giving him more calorie-rich meals, he said.
Most monetary settlements are meager, but the largest was a $50,000 deal given to a prisoner who was improperly subdued more than four years ago.
Only about five suits make it to Pennsylvania's Middle District Court per year, Reihart said, and York hasn't lost one since he became a solicitor in 1992.
"We never lost a case because we have not been violating their rights," he said.
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