Judge upholds report’s secrecy
Names of those involved in Blair prison documents won’t be released
A federal judge has ruled that Blair County is not required to release the names of people who contributed to a recent Pennsylvania Department of Corrections report about the operations of the county prison.
U.S. District Judge Kim R. Gibson in Johnstown found that releasing the names could discourage citizens and officials from providing information to the government, and could chill future attempts at self-evaluation by the county of its own prison.
Gibson, however, ordered the county to scale back its redactions within the DOC report so that an attorney representing the family of a woman who committed suicide in the prison can review “facts” the judge stated are not covered by his grant of executive privilege.
The judge did not specify what facts can be released to attorney George M. Kontos of Pittsburgh, representing Deborah A. Beckwith of Altoona.
Beckwith is the grandmother of the 23-year-old woman, Samantha Beckwith, who died in her prison cell 28 months ago.
Instead, he listed paragraphs by number and by heading that can be reviewed by the attorney in pursuit of the lawsuit filed last year on behalf the Samantha Beckwith’s estate and her two small children.
One of the issues before the court was whether Blair County Judge Daniel J. Milliron, president of the county prison board, waived the county’s executive-privilege claim when he revealed to the Mirror months ago that the report addressed the prison’s mental health and medical care programs, but stated he couldn’t talk about details.
Gibson quoted from the Milliron interview in which the Blair judge stated, “We asked them (DOC) to take us apart. They granted my wish.”
“Because Judge Milliron did not reveal any information that is itself privileged, the disclosure of the information does not waive the county’s privilege,” Gibson ruled.
The vice-president of the Blair County Prison Board, Commissioner Ted A. Beam Jr., prepared an affidavit in which he stated why the county and the DOC have sought a declaration of executive privilege, and stamped the report “Corrections Confidential” and “Not Public Information.”
Beam stated the nearly 300-page report not only provided names of those who gave information relevant to the prison operations but also assessments and recommendations on everything from prison rape issues to staffing and security vulnerability.
“Those areas identified as constituting vulnerabilities for the Blair County Prison or as weaknesses in the physical plant and security measures employed by the prison can be compromised upon the disclosure of the details contained in this report,” Beam wrote in the affidavit, prepared for the prison board.
Kontos contested the necessity for secrecy surrounding the report and stated that the civil action brought against the county took priority over the county’s claims of privilege.
The interests of justice far outweigh any harm or danger that could result from release of the report, according to the plaintiffs, who contend the lax mental health program and faulty procedures at the prison led to the death of the young mother.
Samantha Beckwith was admitted to the prison in September 2016.
She had been incarcerated before and, the grandmother contends in her lawsuit, the prison was well aware of her grandaughter’s bipolar condition and her need for daily medication.
The lawsuit maintains Samantha Beckwith was deprived of her medication and at one point she even relayed suicidal feelings to the staff. She died on Oct. 24, 2016.
In his opinion this week, Gibson cited two legally-recognized privileges granted to government officials — the Law Enforcement Investigatory Privilege and the Deliberative Process Privilege.
The county, Gibson pointed out, desires to “protect the identities of those who participated in the creation of the report,” and the “observations, recommendations and deliberations” aired in the DOC report.
In coming to his ruling, the judge stated he had to balance one side against the other.
He came down on the side of the county, pointing out disclosure of the report would discourage citizens from providing information to the government.
He concluded the impact upon the people who provided the information could be detrimental and bring about retaliation, and disclosure could have a chilling effect on future self-evaluations because people won’t want to become involved in litigation.
Gibson stated that the Beckwith side can obtain the names and information it needs through the court process of pretrial discovery and does not need the names of participants in the report to move ahead with its lawsuit.
He stated the county’s communications and deliberations concerning the issues raised in the report are covered by privilege because revelation may stop officials from “engaging in candid discussions on policy matters, which may affect the quality of agency decisions.”
He went on to rule that factual material is not covered by governmental privilege.
He also ruled that once decisions are made on the issues, communications that explain the decisions are not covered by privilege.
“By compelling production of the information in the DOC report in the course of litigation, the court has serious concerns about discouraging voluntary assessments of prison policies and chilling participation in those assessments,” Gibson stated near the end of his opinion.