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High-ranking Allegheny County Jail administrator fired

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By Bill Vidonic and Bobby Kerlik
Saturday, Oct. 29, 2011

Allegheny County officials fired a high-ranking jail administrator on Friday as a federal investigation of the jail continues.

Maj. James Donis, 49, who was fourth in command at the jail and oversaw special operations there, is the subject of a federal lawsuit filed this month by a former inmate who claims Donis and other members of the jail's special response team beat him severely after he tried to escape.

Donis could not be reached for comment by phone or at his home. His attorney, Charles Porter, said he does not know the circumstances surrounding the firing.

On whether the inmate's pending civil suit figured into it, Porter said, "I would certainly imagine that it did, but without being privy to that information, I can't say."

Judi McNeil, spokeswoman for Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, would not say whether Donis' firing was related to either the lawsuit or the investigation.

"It is a personnel matter," McNeil said.

It was unclear who gave the order to fire Donis. Interim Warden Trevor Wingard refused to comment. Jail employees said union president Charles Manderino was on vacation and could not be reached.

The federal investigation follows multiple accusations that inmates were beaten and jail officials engaged in cover-ups. On June 17, the FBI executed a search warrant at the jail, though county, FBI and U.S. Attorney's office officials have refused to disclose the purpose of the investigation.

Asked whether his client had received a letter from federal authorities informing him that he is the target of an investigation, Porter said he could not comment.

"Obviously, it's a very emotional and trying time for him and his family," Porter said. "To the best of my knowledge, there's been no allegations except one in the civil lawsuit."

The jail also faces several lawsuits, including a claim resulting from the death of a pregnant inmate and one alleging a guard locked an inmate in a cell and watched as five other inmates beat and sodomized him.

Donis of Shaler was hired in September 1989, and according to county records, his salary for 2011 was $68,631.

In August, the jail reorganized its emergency response teams into one special operation response team under the Correctional Emergency Response Team. A memo Donis signed said the team would fall under the command of jail Capt. Louis J. "Lou" Leon; Donis continued to oversee special ops.

Members of CERT are trained to handle uprisings among inmates, extract an inmate from a cell and handle other emergencies.

This month, former inmate Gary W. Barbour filed a federal lawsuit claiming that Donis and others attacked him after he tried to escape from the jail in April 2010 by crawling through ductwork; he was discovered in the jail's mechanical room.

According to the lawsuit, Barbour said that after he was caught, several jail guards subdued him and forced him to his knees. Donis put on leather gloves, said, "I'm your worst nightmare," then started hitting him in the face, Barbour said. Other guards then joined in, he said.

Barbour said he suffered a broken nose, deviated septum, blurred vision and permanent head, back and arm injuries.

"We're evaluating the situation," said Barbour's attorney, Ronald Barber. "But it's far too early to tell what impact, if any, this will have on Gary's case."

The jail's leadership has been in turmoil during the past 10 months, beginning with the departure of Warden Ramon Rustin, who left to head Metropolitan Detention Center in Albuquerque, N.M. Rustin said he was not forced out, even though he left amid scandal.

After Rustin left, the state Department of Corrections named Daniel Burns as interim warden. Burns took over as superintendent at SCI-Pittsburgh, the state correctional facility in the North Side, on Aug. 1; the state then appointed Wingard to act as interim warden while a search committee looks for a permanent warden.

In August, Deputy Warden Lance Bohn resigned to take a job teaching criminal justice classes; his position was filled by Deputy Warden William Emerick, who oversees operations. Deputy Warden Gregory Grogan oversees programs at the jail.

Allegheny County President Judge Donna Jo McDaniel, head of the prison oversight board and chair of the search committee, did not return a phone message seeking comment.

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