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Former jail administrator given probation for beating up inmate

| Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013, 2:06 p.m.

An otherwise exemplary life doesn't give a former top Allegheny County Jail administrator a “free pass” to beat a helpless inmate, but it will keep him out of prison, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

James Donis, 50, of Shaler pleaded guilty in October to falsifying a report to cover the fact that he repeatedly punched Gary W. Barbour, 31, after guards recaptured Barbour during an escape attempt.

Donis asked U.S. District Judge Gustave Diamond for leniency. Donis was a major who was fourth in command at the jail and oversaw special operations there.

“I made a bad mistake,” he said. “Please don't judge me just on this one incident in 23 years.”

Diamond agreed that the pre-sentence investigation by federal probation officers produced evidence that Donis' assault on Barbour was an aberration, but the ensuing cover-up was not. If Donis had admitted the assault immediately he probably would have been reprimanded and still would be working at the jail, the judge said.

“He panicked and began lying about it and that is what brought him here,” Diamond said.

Diamond sentenced Donis to eight months at Renewal Inc., a halfway house, and five years of probation. He also said that Donis would pay restitution. Diamond set a hearing on restitution for May 14.

Barbour has a civil lawsuit pending against Donis and the county seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

Gary Barbour Sr., the inmate's father, said he hoped the judge would sentence Donis to some prison time so that he could understand how helpless his son and other inmates feel.

“Not that I want him to get beat, but I want him to think about how it would feel to be that way,” he said. “That pretty much seems like a slap on the wrist to me.”

Gary Barbour Jr., in a letter, asked the judge to send Donis to prison.

Charles Porter, Donis' attorney, said Barbour repeatedly received probation for crimes. “I think it's ironic that a man who got breaks on seven occasions should suggest that a man should get incarcerated on his first offense,” Porter told the judge.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Shaun Sweeney agreed that the evidence pointed to Donis being “a good man his whole life.”

However, Donis' standing in the corrections community means that all “the correctional officers in the jails and prisons in the Western District of Pennsylvania” are waiting to see what happens, Sweeney said.

Diamond said that consideration was one reason he rejected home confinement for Donis, but he said he also doesn't believe it would be right to send Donis to a maximum-security federal prison.

“The defendant has already suffered quite a bit as the result of his behavior,” the judge said.

Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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