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'Hidden homicide' in a troubled county prison

Plus, U.S. Army responds to Mastriano's campaign imagery.


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Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
August 16, 2022
Prison probe, solitary stops, Army ads, surge spending, content blockers, heat belt, and splooting for the summer. It's Tuesday ... all day.
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Minutes after staff at Dauphin County Prison pepper sprayed Ishmail Thompson, placed a spit hood over his head, and locked him into a restraint chair, he was found unresponsive and in cardiac arrest.

He died a few days later, on July 29, 2021.

PennLive obtained use-of-force and autopsy reports to determine what led up to Thompson's death, one of at least 16 connected to the jail since 2019, and to fill in gaps in the official disclosures that followed. 

In short: Guards used chemical weapons and restraints after a scuffle; soon after that Thompson slipped into a coma from which he never recovered.

The full subscribers-only report can be found here, while a Twitter thread of highlights from reporter Joshua Vaughn can be found here.

THE CONTEXT: County commissioners said Thompson, who was medically cleared before entering the jail, died from a "medical episode."

The autopsy found a minuscule amount of marijuana in his system and no indication of physical trauma to his head or skull.

The county didn't report it as an "in-custody" death because while Thompson was in a coma dying, his bail was reduced and he was released — such semantics are used to lower prison death counts statewide.

Shannon Pieper of Lexipol — a company that provides policy and training materials to thousands of U.S. law enforcement agencies — told PennLive that spit hoods and pepper spray can be a dangerous combination.

Coroner Graham Hetrick said the manner of death is still undetermined, but Roger Mitchell, chair of the pathology department at Howard University School of Medicine and former chief medical examiner for Washington D.C., was given a copy of the autopsy report and considers it a homicide.

Dauphin County officials have expressed a desire to improve conditions at the prison and hired former state Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel as an adviser. But while Wetzel has called for more transparency, PennLive found very little in the course of its reporting on Thompson's death.


"If you work for the FBI, then you deserve to die."

—Words allegedly written by Adam Bies, 46, of Mercer on Gab following the FBI's recent raid of Mar-a-Lago; Bies has since been arrested
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A little slice of Eden at the Millbrook Marsh in State College. Thanks for sharing, Robert N. Have a cool image of your own? Send us your photos or art, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
SOLITARY VOTES: A push to get a ballot question about limiting solitary confinement at Lehigh County Jail on November ballots has failed due to a lack of signatures, the Morning Call (paywalled) reports. A similar effort in Lackawanna County reportedly has the signatures but local officials are pushing back, the Times-Tribune reports, via Yahoo News. In 2021, Allegheny County voters approved such limits there. Activists say they've been violated hundreds of times since.

MILITARY RULES: Doug Mastriano is updating the military imagery used in his campaign for governor, some of which violated a U.S. Army policy that governs how political candidates use photographs of themselves in uniform. The Army reached out after an inquiry from WESA, the outlet reports. On Friday, Mastriano, a Gulf War vet, will rally with Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in Pittsburgh. PublicSource's Charlie Wolfson reports $10,000 photo ops are on the menu.

AD MONEY: Mastriano is being outspent on TV ads in the governor's race 10-to-1, PennLive (paywalled) reports. His rival, Democratic nominee Josh Shapiro, put up more than $12.6 million through the first 10 weeks of the campaign, versus Mastriano's $1.3 million. In the race for U.S. Senate here, The Times (paywalled) reports a prominent GOP group is canceling ads "in a sign of financial troubles" tied to fundraising woes. (A spokesperson for the group disputes the reporting.)

NEW POLICY: WHYY reports a new restriction on school materials containing "sexualized content" was adopted by the Central Bucks School District last week. The move follows months of protest there over similar controls deemed censorship by some parents and educators. Sharon Ward of the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania says the rule "effectively bans human development and sex education."

CLIMATE CHANGE: Two Pennsylvania counties — Chester and Lancaster — are included in a map of places where temps could reach 125 degrees at least one day a year by 2053 under a climate change-related "extreme heat belt." Axios reports the findings come from a hyperlocal analysis of current and future extreme heat events published Monday by the nonprofit First Street Foundation. 

MUSIKFEST SHOOTING: Bethlehem police now confirm that someone was shot at Musikfest on Saturday, per WFMZ. Two days after the shooting, police on Monday said the 20-year-old victim was in stable condition.

FREE TESTING: Residents whose water has potentially been impacted by the construction of the Mariner East 2 Pipeline have until Friday, Aug. 19 to request free water testing. Find the details here.

MEAD MAN: Pirates owner Bob "Sell the Team" Nutting has bought a distillery instead. Nutting is set to become the new owner of Pittsburgh's Wigle whiskey and Threadbare Cider and Mead, TribLIVE reports. 

BEST OF: Axios' Shane Savitsky says the best cheesesteak in Philadelphia can be found at a Filipino food cart called Tabachoy that serves them with fried shallots and "chili-vin whiz."

SPLOOT SZN: That splayed out squirrel in your yard might not be succumbing to the summer elements but rather coping with them. As NYC recently reminded the world, it's a cooling trick called splooting.

Unscramble and send your answer to scrambler@spotlightpa.org. We'll shout out winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA swag. Answers submitted by 6 p.m. on issue date will be counted.

*Note: Instead of listing this week's theme here, we're going to ask you all to guess it at the end of the week for an extra chance to win Spotlight PA swag.
Yesterday's answer: Examinations

Congrats to our daily winners: Craig W., Irene R., Brooke S., Don H., Judith D., Elaine C., Michelle T., Chuck M., Deb N., Theresa T., Becky C., Margaret Mary H., George S., Beth T., Susan N.-Z., Susan D., Doris T., James B., Nancy S., Jude M., Ted M., Kimberly D., Bill S., George S., Eddy Z., Wendy A., Dianne K., Warren D., Starr B., and Mary Jo J.
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