The Sex Abuse Scandal No One Talks About

Content warning — Sexual abuse, prison, drugs.

The day is February 14, 2018. It’s a quiet midwinter day, slightly warmer than usual due to shifting weather patterns. Many are conducting their daily routines as they usually do — going to work and running errands. To most, it was just another day of the week.

To seven men, it’s the day their several year long cover up is finally unwound.

James Walsh Jr., Mark Johnson, Paul Voglino, George McHale, John Schnipes, George Efthimiou, and Jeff Staff are all arrested on charges of sexual assault and harassment against prison inmates at the Lackawanna County Prison after a lawsuit in 2016 and subsequent investigation in summer of 2017. The months that follow tell a story that’s relatively quiet, yet it’s one that you’d expect out of some high profile national case; one of corruption, abuse, and an abundance of lawyer-level technicalities.

This isn’t one that’s often talked about — the most coverage received outside of the area are brief articles in USA Today, The Daily Beast and The New York Times, both of which fail to tell the whole story.

So let’s change that.

We’ll have to go back to July of 2016, when an anonymous had Matthew Comerford, an attorney, file a lawsuit against several individuals involved in the prison system, including four of those arrested later in February — George McHale, Mark Johnson, John Schnipes, and James Walsh. Three more women anonymously come forward and join the case, however two were dismissed from the case due it being too late to legally reported. The one who stayed is named Tammy Fox — we’ll go over her more later on.

Two were dismissed. All because of the state’s inability to handle those who experienced trauma.

This isn’t the first time something like this was reported — Joe Black was charged back in 2015 (after prosecutors actually offered a deal that lowered his imprisonment by over 36 years to, at most, only four years!) for sexually assaulting several women in prison over a period of over NINE YEARS. As the New York Times wrote, a culture of abuse at this prison has been established for well over a decade.

The specific details of the 2016 case aren’t all out in public — most of what’s known is confined to what’s told to local newspapers after periods spanning several months.

What is known, however, is that Comerford filed a new lawsuit in early April against Jeffrey Staff, seven other prison employees, and the county on charges of sexual assault by several prison guards and sex with Staff while on work release. The former involved prison guards who unfortunately weren’t charged within the case, presumably because they were already involved with separate cases of similar charges. Their names?

John Shnipes and Joe Black.

So rather than additional charges be made against them, what happened to Comerford’s client is essentially swept under the rug. Yet another example of bias for those in power.

The charges against Staff go even deeper. See there’s major concern here because as Staff was a prison guard, he essentially was in a position of power to coerce Comerford’s client into sexual relations — while not stated in the initial article this power structure is undoubtedly at play, considering the client’s concern. This wasn’t one that went unnoticed, of course — multiple guards were aware of it and threatened Comerford’s client if she continued it!

So how was this undoubtedly awful lawsuit handled by the county?

For starters, Staff’s attorney was continuously trying to state that Comerford’s client was lying and only in it for money. In addition to this, the state pushed for a settlement to avoid actually, god forbid, having to pay more into the case and actually undergo a lawsuit for those involved!

It can only be surmised there’s coercion at play here against Comerford’s client as opposed to agreeing to a relatively small settlement. After all, with no wrongdoing admitted it’s clear that the county wants to avoid additional infringement against it, especially with the abundance of issues detailed prior and to be in the future. Anything more would only be adding kindle to the flame, and getting Comerford’s client to agree to a settlement would be a fine way to extinguish it. Even though Staff is still free, on unrestricted bail, the state certainly doesn’t care!

This isn’t even the first time this happened, either — it happened to another client of Comerford’s who came forward with sexual abuse back in 2016.

Fortunately, the initial July lawsuit is still at play, with more evidence coming forward.

This evidence reveals that Edward Williams was also likely involved and abused inmates himself. He was suspected in 2017, only put on paid leave (which he’s on now, not exactly the best way to treat a rapist) and brought back a couple months later after claims were determined to be “unsubstantiated.” Nonetheless, he’s back in suspicion again with this case.

As if this rabbit hole wasn’t going deep enough, it only goes deeper when we get into Richard Grenfell’s story.

Grenfell claims to be the only individual to actually try to expose the guards and stop the abuse while he was working at the prison, and in fact he was involved with this entier lawsuit since the beginning back in 2016!

Grenfell is filing a whistleblower’s lawsuit, saying that he was fired for attempting to expose what was happening to the prisoners. The official staff claim he was fired for making “inappropriate sexual comments about a female oco-worker,” and while he doesn’t deny making these comments, he actually claims that other staff did far worse and received much more minimal punishment — day long suspensions, a verbal warning, and even one getting re-hired after having been fired for it!

How did Grenfell attempt to expose what happened? After waiting in delay for five years with his superiors doing nothing to handle the situation, he met with Comerford and together they filed the lawsuits established beforehand — only to be met with being fired on a claim of sexual harassment two days later. It wasn’t even by the woman who was supposedly harassed or on her behalf!

It sure is funny how things work, isn’t it?

So with all this it should seem as if the case was looking up, that there began to stockpile far too much to make any defense of those involved.

But then disaster struck.

On August 21, Tammy Fox died in a car accident. Police investigated and determined that, rather than it being a stroke of luck, this was a homicide — someone had cut the brakes to her car, causing her to crash into a tree. However, the police, as opposed to suspecting the county being involved — as if they would ever — they instead seek to blame her boyfriend. Fox’s boyfriend was undoubtedly abusive and controlling, as one of her friends had stated, and Fox even wanted out of the relationship however he himself admitted to having no knowledge of cars, and in fact was trying to ‘cut anything from underneath the vehicle that could be used to smoke crack.’ I don’t know about you, but brake wires don’t exactly look like a pipe to me.

Fox’s friends don’t buy this either -as one of her friends said,

“I mean, can’t you find something else around your house to smoke crack in? Aluminum foil? Something else. I’m pretty sure if you’re a career crack head, you can find something else besides a brake line to smoke crack in.”

In addition, someone who knew Fox’s boyfriend for years also suspects he didn’t do it, claiming he wasn’t in the right “state of mind” and that he was “unable to walk straight or light a cigarette.”

It needn’t be said that this very likely done by someone else, and one can only assume it’s the county attempting to cover it up, especially since now there’s much more trouble in the prosecution with Fox gone.

There’s one last aspect of the case to cover, the most recent one. This one concerns John Shnipes and his attorney, Brian McMonagle.

See, back in 2013, a nonprosecution agreement was reached when there was an investigation into sexual assault charges against Shnipes, with the district attorney of the time, Andy Jarbola, agreeing not to file charges against Shnipes if he immediately quit his job at the prison. McMonagle aims to have the charges against Shnipes currently dropped, also alleging a violation of due process rights due to the time between the agreement and the current charges. This agreement is especially problematic as its “vaguely worded” and can be easily construed in favor of Shnipes.

The case is currently on hold with the bench being recused due to worries of conflicts of interest involving Jarbola being called as a witness. In addition, only Jarbola, Shnipes, and Shnipes’ attorney at the time signed the agreement, with no other attorneys or investigators signing it. While McMonagle attempts to argue as if its a grand unjust picture, it’s a valid concern considering the potential for this to actually happen, given Jarbola’s key role in this. Of course, there’s plenty of denials to be made on technicalities, and we’re only going to see more of this in due time.

And such is the tale of the Lackawanna County Prison sex abuse scandal, as much as we currently know about it. It’s one that needs more attention, one that we need to talk about, one that needs prominence as much of this is going under the radar in spite of how suspect much of it is and how much corruption is likely at play here. Citizens have protested and investigated similar cases in the past, and it’s time we do so again to uncover the corruption in the state government.



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Mira Lazine

A writer with a focus on helping the marginalized and opposing systems of hierarchy. She/Her