PITTSBURGH – A fired guard at the center of an investigation into the alleged sexual and physical abuse of inmates at the state prison in Pittsburgh has been sentenced to five years’ probation, including six months on house arrest.
“I’m sparing you from the danger that you imposed on the individuals you were in charge of,” Allegheny County Judge David Cashman told the former guard, Harry Nicoletti, 61, of Coraopolis, at his sentencing Thursday.
The sentence was a tiny fraction of the potential decades in prison Nicoletti faced when he was first charged with 117 counts involving 31 alleged victims – including several dozen charges that he raped or had other unwanted sexual contact with inmates, mostly gays or those convicted of molesting children, at the century-old lockup once known as Western Pen.
Nicoletti was accused of systematically abusing those inmates when he oversaw an intake pod at the prison in 2009 and 2010. The investigation also resulted in the firing of the prison superintendent and other top supervisors, and charges against six other guards who allegedly helped Nicoletti abuse the inmates – but has resulted in more litigation than convictions.
Defense attorneys, including Nicoletti’s, Stephen Colafella, predicted the criminal cases would collapse as they argued the inmate victims were lying, exaggerating or otherwise not credible. Charges against four of the six other guards have been dismissed by judges or dropped by prosecutors, while one other guard is still awaiting trial and the sixth was convicted on charges he threatened an inmate but was acquitted on charges he abused three others.
By the time Nicoletti went to trial in January, 89 counts involving 21 inmates remained against Nicoletti but three weeks later he was convicted of just 27 counts involving 13 victims, for using his official powers to harass or assault the prisoners, to enlist some inmates to harass or assault others, and, on three occasions, for exposing himself to inmates. But the jury rejected dozens of the most serious sexual assault charges, which Cashman noted in his sentencing.
“You were painted as an ogre, you were painted as a sex fiend,” the judge said, noting that a presentence investigation painted a portrait of a loving, hard-working, stable family man.
Colafella said that contrast likely resulted in the relatively lenient sentence.
“This was a difficult case to predict because it’s gone from one extreme to the other,” Colafella said, referring to the relatively few charges that ultimately stuck against Nicoletti.
Although Nicoletti apologized to his family, he didn’t apologize to his victims though he acknowledged some responsibility for his actions when he told the judge, “I understand my presence here is the result of actions and decisions that I have made and no one else.”
And Colafella said the jury’s verdict was a “policy statement that this kind of behavior is not to be tolerated” by guards.
The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections declined to comment on the sentencing, as did Assistant District Attorney Jon Pittman.
Joseph Sibeto, the father of one of Nicoletti’s inmate victims, was livid after the sentencing. Nicoletti was acquitted of charges that he fondled or had Sibeto’s son fondle him, but was convicted of enlisting the inmate to beat up other inmates Nicoletti targeted.
“He should be sentenced and get jail time just like anybody else,” Sibeto said of Nicoletti. Instead, the judge’s sentence amounted to telling Nicoletti, “Go home, go home with your family.”
“He doesn’t know what he did to so many families, we’re still living it,” Sibeto said.
Several inmates still have civil lawsuits pending, alleging abuse by Nicoletti and the other guards. Meanwhile, the fired prison administrators have sued the Department of Corrections and others, alleging they were made scapegoats for the guards’ alleged conduct.
Several guards who were fired, demoted or charged criminally before they were cleared have also sued, claiming internal investigators with the Department of Corrections encouraged inmates to make unwarranted allegations.