CLEARFIELD – A jury deliberated for approximately 25 minutes Monday afternoon before convicting a State Correctional Institution at Houtzdale inmate for concealing weapons in his cell.
John L. Jones, 38, was convicted of inmate procure self with weapon; prohibited offensive weapons; and disorderly conduct. The charges stem from an incident Aug. 14, 2014 at the SCI Houtzdale.
Assistant District Attorney Warren Mikesell II presented the case for the commonwealth. Jones was represented by defense attorney Leanne Nedza. President Judge Fredric Ammerman presided over the trial.
Michael Rowe, a prison unit manager, testified first for the commonwealth. On the date in question, he said Jones discussed having problems with his cellmate and wanting to have his cell assignment changed as a result.
When inquiring further about the nature of the problems, Rowe said Jones told him if he was sent back to his cell, he would “bust his cellmate’s head open.” He said Jones admitted he had weapons – a sock with rocks and a prison-made knife.
Under cross-examination, Nedza asked Rowe if Jones came to him to request to see a psychiatrist. Rowe said Jones wanted to change his cell assignment, which he denied because there wasn’t a valid reason for it.
Rowe said once Jones threatened to harm his cellmate and admitted to possessing weapons, he initiated prison protocol to further investigate with a search of Jones’ cell. “I acted immediately on that,” he said.
Nedza proceeded to call attention to the fact that the psychiatrist was present at some point when Jones was in Rowe’s office. Rowe, however, said the psychiatrist didn’t have a major role in handling the situation.
When asked later by Mikesell, Rowe explained that he wasn’t certain if the psychiatrist responded to his office before or after Jones admitted to possessing the weapons.
Blake Hinson, a prison security team member, escorted Jones from Rowe’s office to the restricted housing unit. Afterward, he proceeded to Jones’ cell and assisted with a weapons search. Hinson said he searched the left side around the bunks.
While searching the top bunk, he located a sock with rocks and a prison-made knife sharpened to a point beneath the mattress. Both of these weapons, he said, could cause serious bodily injury or death.
Hinson said he was present when Jones admitted the weapons belonged to him in an interview with Captain Michael Lewis.
Under cross-examination, Hinson explained that inmates are assigned a bed; the top bunk, he said, was assigned to Jones. Hinson also testified to finding personal belongings for Jones on the top bunk during his search.
Lewis said he was made aware about Jones’ threats toward his cellmate. He determined that Jones would be transported to the RHU; he was present for the escort from Rowe’s office to the RHU.
Lewis said he ordered for Jones’ cell to be secured to prevent anyone from coming in or out. He said he wasn’t present for the subsequent search but had two weapons turned over to him. Lewis said he photographed and secured both as evidence until transfer to state police at Clearfield.
On the date in question, Lewis said he interviewed Jones in the RHU. He said Jones claimed ownership of the weapons.
Trooper Justin Jones, a criminal investigator with the state police, responded to the SCI Houtzdale. Upon arrival he was provided with related paperwork and the weapons. The trooper said he didn’t have any contact with Jones, who declined to speak to him.
Under cross-examination, the trooper said he didn’t look inside the sock. However, he said its contents appeared to be consistent with a rock or crushed concrete. When asked, the trooper said he didn’t attempt to get fingerprints from the prison-made knife.
Jones took the stand in his own defense Monday afternoon. He testified that he went to Rowe to get out of his cell while he was having problems with his “celly.” Jones said he was taking psychiatric medications at the time.
In his testimony, Jones claimed that he requested to see a psychiatrist during his meeting with Rowe. When Rowe inquired about his problems with his cellmate, Jones said he admitted to having “thoughts” of doing something to his cellmate, but he didn’t intend to act.
Under cross-examination, Mikesell asked Jones about a statement to Rowe in which he threatened to bust his cellmate’s head open. Jones said he never made that statement to Rowe, and it was a lie. Jones also denied telling Rowe that he had weapons with plans of using them.
When he was interviewed by Lewis, Jones said he did take ownership of the weapons for fear of being labeled as a snitch within SCI Houtzdale. This, he said, would have created problems for him at the prison.
In closing, Nedza argued that Jones went to see Rowe because he wanted to get psychiatric help. “But apparently at SCI Houtzdale, you have to elaborate about your problems. It’s not fair,” she said.
“…John had bad thoughts; it’s OK to have bad thoughts. You just can’t act on those thoughts. There wasn’t any testimony that his cellmate was harmed in any way.”
Nedza suggested that Jones’ cellmate planted the weapons in order to get him [Jones] put in “the hole,” or RHU. “Why would anyone go to their unit manager to say I have a shank and a sock with rocks?” she asked. “The weapons were planted by his cellmate or someone on his behalf.”
Nedza also reinforced Jones’ claims that he feared being labeled as a snitch at SCI Houtzdale. She said he accepted ownership of the weapons to protect himself within the state prison system.
Mikesell reminded the jury that Jones was in possession of weapons that could have caused serious bodily injury or death. He said inmates fashion items into weapons to protect themselves, which is prohibited by prison rules.
Mikesell said Jones went to Rowe’s office to get his cell changed but didn’t have a valid reason. “Can you imagine if inmates dictated with whom they lived with?” he said. “It doesn’t work that way; there are policies in place.”
Mikesell said when Rowe inquired further with Jones about the problems with his cellmate Jones made the threat about busting his head open and told him he had the weapons to do it. He said Rowe acted to get a security team in to investigate it.
Mikesell said a search turned up weapons and the investigation confirmed they were found beneath the mattress on Jones’ bed. “He even owned up to it and said, ‘yeah, it’s mine,” said Mikesell. “Now, he wants to come in here and say, ‘I didn’t want to be labeled as a snitch.’”
Jones is currently serving a sentence of 13 to 30 years for a robbery involving serious bodily injury, according to Mikesell.