According to an arbitrator, corrections officials made a procedural error under the department's labor contract with the guards union and, as a result, he ordered their reinstatement with back pay, a decision that will cost Pennsylvania more than $400,000. We hope the state challenges the ruling.
Harry F. Nicoletti, 61, of Coraopolis was suspended from his job without pay or benefits in January 2011, but it wasn't until nine months later that he was charged with singling out homosexual inmates and those convicted of sex crimes against children for beatings, threats and sexual assaults, among other mistreatment. He is awaiting trial on 89 criminal counts.
Similarly, seven other guards who were investigated were suspended in April 2011. Two were not charged. The remaining five were charged seven months after their suspensions, with two subsequently cleared and three others awaiting trial on charges ranging from oppression to simple assault.
But the ruling applies to all of them. Arbitrator Ron Talerico said the union contract requires corrections officials to provide notice and a hearing before suspending someone without pay. He rejected the state's view that it could not provide the information because the prison block where they worked was the subject of secrecy provisions of a grand jury investigation.
Even if the department was wrong, it took the right steps in getting the guards away from the inmates.
Once the department learned of the serious allegations against the guards, particularly the alleged ring leader, it needed to act and protect inmates under their jurisdiction. If a man accused of rape is released on bond pending a trial, you can be pretty sure a judge will require him to stay away from his alleged victim. Keeping guards accused of mistreating inmates in positions of authority over them would have been wrong.
In hindsight, the officers who were never charged and the two who were cleared may well deserve reinstatement and back pay, provided they violated no terms of their employment.
But the four men awaiting trial, and most particularly Mr. Nicoletti, should not go back to working with inmates until their cases are resolved.
We hope the state prevails in challenging the arbitrator's ruling. If it fails and must pay these men as their cases progress, the corrections department must be certain they are not placed in situations where they will have contact with inmates. Even if it means paying them for nothing.