SCI Greene inmates contacted several well-known civil rights lawyers before and during the department inquiry in a bid to persuade one to file a class-action lawsuit on their behalf over prison conditions. But the state’s discipline and personnel actions amid the probe beat them to the punch.
Varner, who began his career in 1972 as an SCI Huntingdon guard and who became Greene’s superintendent in May 1997, was punished in April with a $6,600-a-year pay cut and transfer to SCI Retreat, a medium-security Luzerne County prison. He declined to discuss his time at SCI Greene.
Varner replaced James Price after Price, another alumni of Huntingdon’s guard ranks, was named superintendent at Pittsburgh after last year’s escape of six inmates there. Price, Greene’s first superintendent, did not respond to requests for an interview.
Former guard Lavia said SCI Greene deteriorated after Price departed and Varner took over: “When Price left, that place went downhill. It was a totally hateful place to work. Once he left, the leash was taken off. Varner’s attitude was that this is the toughest camp in the state. That’s the way it’s going to be. As a guard, you were right in somebody’s face all the time.”
Lavia noted that Varner himself ordered the RHU wall pad. “That’s what I couldn’t believe. I said to myself, he’s just asking for trouble here. He’s admitting he’s doing something wrong. We know we’re banging them against the bricks.”
Varner’s transfer was significant to prison policy observers.
“It’s a pretty extraordinary thing, in my view,” said Andrew Shubin, a State College lawyer who has filed numerous civil rights suits on inmates’ behalf. “The old (department) always promoted problematic employees, but it’s a nice turnaround that Martin Horn has disciplined somebody who has had problems.”
Gregory White, the superintendent Price replaced at Pittsburgh, was demoted and sent to Greene as Varner’s assistant following the escape at the Woods Run prison. White was transferred again in June, to SCI Greensburg.
Philip Johnson, a native of the North Side who began his career as a Pittsburgh prison guard, is trying to put the pieces back together at Greene. He concedes the challenge but plans no wholesale overhaul.
“I was not sent down here to clean house, swing the axes. It was recognized that there was a problem with the management style.” At the same time, “I don’t want to sit back too long and do nothing.”
One of Johnson’s first changes was to revise the “very restrictive” grievance procedure that spurred the Brandon incident last year. The buck had been constantly passed on grievances. When an inmate filed one against an employee, lower-level supervisors passed it up the line to Beerman.
“No one was taking the responsibility,” Johnson said. “Consequently, it was going straight to the superintendent’s assistant.”
Beerman, inundated with grievances, changed the process to require that inmates complete a grievance request slip before getting a grievance form. Inmates say guards often refused their requests for such slips, so they couldn’t file grievances.
When Johnson took over in May, he changed the policy, saying, “the whole system itself did not work.” Grievance forms are available in boxes in the general population blocks and by request in the RHU.
Johnson also expanded the list of items that can be purchased by inmates in administrative custody in the RHU. And he ordered legal material for death row inmates to be stored in their blocks, instead of in another part of the RHU, and let inmates have access to legal material once a week rather than monthly.
RHU guards have been told to temper commands during strip searches and be more patient. Johnson spoke with each guard about department policies, especially regarding use of force.
“I’ve addressed every shift at roll call about what my personal philosophy of the institution is,” he said. “If we go by the (department’s use of force) policy, there won’t be any problems. There aren’t any gray areas about when force can be used.”
Johnson is reluctant to discuss what happened at Greene before he arrived but said he has reviewed some RHU videos. He has no problem with discipline handed out by his bosses in Camp Hill. “My position is to move this institution forward. I can’t continue to second-guess decisions that have already been made.”
Many guards and inmates have known Johnson for years, mainly his 10 1/2 at SCI Pittsburgh. He plans to keep inmates’ respect by dealing with them honestly.
“If you’re honest with the inmates and tell them what you can do and tell them what you can’t do, they’ll respect that. It’s not our job to punish them further than what the courts have already done.”