HARRISBURG - A Schuylkill County senator is pushing legislation to provide legal safeguards for state corrections officers involved in disciplinary proceedings.

Sen. David Argall, R-29, Tamaqua, calls his legislation a "Corrections Officers Bill of Rights."

The measure provides that information relating to the nature of a complaint must be provided in writing to an officer not less than 24 hours prior to an interrogation. It gives officers legal cause to seek action for damages if a complaint is found to be without merit, frivolous or in bad faith. "Prison inmates have fundamental rights and a myriad of safeguards to protect and exercise those rights," said Argall. "If we recognize that convicted criminals retain certain rights when they enter prison to serve their punishment, surely we can insist on the same for corrections officers when they enter prison to serve the public." The legislation stems from a case where corrections officers were suspended without pay and benefits for nearly a year without the ability to ask questions related to why they were suspended or to defend themselves at a hearing, said Argall.

Notwithstanding the bill, Argall said he strongly believes that any corrections officer found guilty of a crime should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

The bill was subject of a recent joint hearing by the Senate and House Labor and Industry Committees.

The statewide association representing corrections officers called for the bill's passage while the Corbett administration has raised concerns about it.

The legislation seeks to impose a negotiation-by-legislation approach in areas better suited for collective bargaining, said a statement by the Office of Administration.

The bill would only apply to corrections officers, thereby creating another set of standards in internal investigation involving other department employees who aren't officers, the office added.

The corrections department's current method of handling complaints has a chilling effect on officers who fear an inmate will file a false accusation against them, said Jason Bloom, vice president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association.

"The Department of Corrections upon receiving an allegation from an inmate will suspend the Officer with no pay or benefits for himself or his family," added Bloom. "This suspension takes place prior to an investigation taking place or even worse without the Corrections Officer knowing what he is accused of."

There is no time limit for the department to complete an investigation of charges, he said.

Contact the writer: rswift@timesshamrock.com