Blair prison report requested
Grandmother of suicide victim seeks information
The attorney for an Altoona woman whose granddaughter committed suicide in the Blair County Prison has asked a federal judge to release two unredacted reports that can shed light on the prison’s operations and medical care.
So far, the county and its medical provider, PrimeCare Medical Inc. of Harrisburg, are refusing to provide the reports to Pittsburgh attorney George M. Kontos, who is representing Deborah A. Beckwith of Altoona.
The Blair County Coroner ruled Samantha Rae Beckwith, 23, the mother of two young children, committed suicide on Oct. 24, 2016, while an inmate at the prison.
As administratrix of the estate, Deborah Beckwith is suing for damages on behalf of Samantha’s estate and her two children.
The county, in an affidavit submitted by Commissioner Ted A. Beam, the vice chairman of the Blair County Prison Board, stated the report, prepared for the county by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, “outlines weaknesses of the (prison) that could reasonably subject the prison to security concerns.”
The report, done at the county’s request, is more than 350 pages long.
Over several months, it examined every aspect of the prison, including staffing, security vulnerability, mental health care, the application of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, medical care, training, maintenance, food preparation, the prison’s “culture” and “service, safety and sanitation,” according to Beam’s affidavit.
“The confidential nature of the report has been guarded by both Blair County and the Department of Corrections,” Beam said.
The report was so confidential, the DOC put a stamp on it stating, “Not Public Information,” Beam reported.
It includes suggestions on how to address each concern outlined in the report, but the commissioner claims the public airing of the report would enable inmates “to use such information to the detriment of security and/or to interfere with the prison’s assessment and corrective strategies.”
Legally, the county is contending that it is not required to release the document, invoking what is known as the “Law Enforcement Investigatory Privilege,” and the “Deliberative Process Privilege.”
Kontos is also seeking a Mortality Review conducted by PrimeCare, a private company which provides medical services to many prisons in Pennsylvania.
Such internal medical reviews are confidential under state law, PrimeCare claims.
Kontos, however, in his petition to U.S. District Judge Kim R. Gibson, contended that the confidentiality privileges cited by the county do not apply, pointing out, “The interest of (the Beckwith family) in obtaining the information contained within the DOC report far outweighs any possible detriment that Blair County may face by producing it.”
The Beckwith claims are grounded in federal civil rights law and the claims that the prison and its executives were negligent in the failure to treat Samantha Beckwith for known, and obvious, mental health issues are not “frivolous,” Kontos stated in his petition.
He also stated that the plaintiff would be willing to sign an agreement not to release the DOC report.
The county’s attempt at self evaluation and program improvement “will not be chilled by disclosure due to plaintiff’s willingness to enter into a confidentiality agreement relating to the contents of the DOC report,” it was stated by Kontos.
With respect to the petition seeking the PrimeCare report, the Beckwith attorney maintains that while Pennsylvania has passed the Peer Review Protection Act to provide confidentiality for internal medical reviews, state law does not apply to discovery in federal cases.
“In other words, federal privileges apply to federal law claims, and state privileges apply to claims arising under state law. … Further, where federal and state causes arise in the same case, the federal law favoring admissibility’ controls,” he stated.
Kontos said Thursday the next step is for Blair County and PrimeCare to answer his motions to produce the documents.
That could occur as early as next week, he said.
Judge Gibson will decide how to go from there. He could decide to hold a hearing or make a decision based on the documents submitted.
The judge also might decide to request the documents for his own review before making a decision concerning the documents, Kontos stated.