Judge orders Blair to provide prison operations report

Gibson wants documents to resolve dispute in Beckwith suicide case

U.S. District Judge Kim R. Gibson has ordered Blair County to provide him with redacted and unredacted copies of a Pennsylvania Department of Corrections report concerning operations at the county prison.

Gibson intends to review the reports in his effort to resolve a dispute between attorneys for the county and for the grandmother of a young, incarcerated mother of two children who took her life on Oct. 24, 2016.

The order by the judge, who presides over the federal court in Johnstown, stated the county is to provide him with the copies of the report by Monday.

Samantha Rae Beckwith, 23, in the prison for suspected probation violations, was found dead in her cell.

Her grandmother, Deborah A. Beckwith of Altoona, has sued the county and the prison administration on behalf of Samantha’s two young children, charging that the prison knew that Samantha had a history of mental health problems and deprived her of medication, a factor that led to her suicide.

The Blair County commissioners and the county prison board, led by Blair County Judge Daniel J. Milliron, following a series of incidents at the prison, including the Beckwith suicide, asked the Department of Corrections to conduct a no-holds-barred review of prison operations and led to a report that contained recommendations concerning every aspect of the prison, including its mental health program.

The DOC report is considered a privileged or protected communication by the DOC and the county, meaning that it is not for view by the public.

That led attorney George M. Kontos of Pittsburgh to contend that the DOC report is necessary for him to pursue the Beckwith civil claims against the county.

He maintained the report is not protected by the Law Enforcement Investigatory Privilege, which seeks to remove from public view information that would “harm the operation of government” or the Delib­era­tive Process Privilege protecting “confidential delib­erations of law or policymaking, reflecting opinions, recommendations or advice.”

Interests of justice for the Beckwith family outweigh any harm or danger to prison employees that may result from release of the report, Kontos argued.

The report’s information “provides an evaluation of the prison’s policies, procedures and recommendations that would bring the prison up to the standards of the Department of Cor­rec­tions.

“Because the plaintiff (Beckwith) is claiming that insufficient prison policies and procedures led directly to the injuries suffered by the plaintiff, the information contained in the report is of utmost importance to the plaintiff’s cause of action,” Kontos claimed.

The county position was stated in an affidavit submitted by Commissioner Ted A. Beam Jr., in which he pointed out the report “outlines weaknesses of the Blair County Prison that could reasonably subject the prison to security concerns.”

Disseminating the report to an inmate would pose a security concern to the prison, its staff and other inmates, Beam contended.

The report assessed and examined those areas of the prison “vulnerable to high risk of sexual abuse or harassment,” he continued.

Release of the report, could harm efforts to control the flow of drugs, weapons or contraband into the prison, Beam said.

Both sides agreed in mid-December that a step toward resolving the problem would be for the judge to conduct a review of the issue in his chambers.

Federal law, based on a 1995 precedent, allows the district court to perform what is called an in-camera review of the alleged privileged documents “before balancing the competing interests and exercising its discretion (with regard to a claim of deliberative pro­cess privilege),” Gibson stated in his order.

Kontos also had requested the judge to order release of a Mortality Review prepared by PrimeCare Medi­cal Inc., the Harrisburg-based company the provides medical care at the Blair County Prison.

Federal records show the dispute between PrimeCare and the the Beckwith attorney has been resolved out of court.