By Keith Gushard
One way or another, an independent probe of operations at the Crawford County jail may be coming.
County Commissioner Chairman Francis Weiderspahn Jr. said he’s willing to support a review of county jail operations by an agency within the Federal Bureau of Prisons — whether that request is made by county commissioners or the full Crawford County Prison Board.
At Thursday’s commissioners meeting, Sam Byrd, a Meadville resident who has often voiced concerns regarding local prisoner rights, asked county commissioners to have county jail operations reviewed by the National Institute of Corrections at no cost to the county.
“I’m willing to do it if we find out it’s at no cost to the county — certainly if there’s no cost to the county,” Weiderspahn said. “I’m willing as long as the others are in agreement — if as a (commissioners) board we can do it ourselves, or as the prison board.”
Barry Grossman, Erie County’s chief executive, has asked the National Institute of Corrections for a review of that county’s jail operations. The National Institute of Corrections has no official jurisdiction over county jails, so its investigators will only make recommendations, not mandates.
Since January, two former Erie County Prison guards were sentenced for orchestrating an inmate’s beating, while other Erie County Prison guards have been disciplined or charged for allegedly fudging timecards and stealing ammunition.
Weiderspahn said if questions about criteria to initiate a review and cost can be answered in the next few days, the matter may be presented at the next week’s Crawford County Prison Board meeting. The county prison board meets Thursday.
All three county commissioners — Weiderspahn, Jack Lynch and C. Sherman Allen — serve on the Crawford County Prison Board which sets policy for county jail operations. Other seats on the jail board, mandated by state law, are a county judge, district attorney, sheriff and county treasurer.
“I’ve called for it and I’m still interested,” Allen said of an independent probe of the jail.
Lynch said he was willing to look at it, but would like some additional information about the National Institute of Corrections before making a decision.
Contacted Thursday, some other members of the prison board said they, too, possibly were willing to look at an independent probe, while one didn’t think it was necessary.
“I need to know more information before I make that decision,” said Christine Krzysiak, county treasurer who serves on the prison board. “I’m not saying I’m ruling it out.”
Judge John Spataro, who also serves on the prison board, said he also wants to learn more about what the National Institute of Corrections does.
“I’d want to know what they do, who they talk to,” said Spataro. “It would be great for the county if it doesn’t cost anything.”
Francis Schultz, the county’s district attorney and chairman of the prison board, said he doesn’t think the review is needed.
“We’ve had past perfect inspections by the Department of Corrections,” Schultz said, noting the county prison has had five consecutive perfect scores following inspections by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. The inspections include review of records and interviews with both inmates and staff members. Previous internal reviews of jail operations have found claims of misconduct to be without merit, Schultz said.
In October 2009, the Crawford County Prison Board, which included the previous board of commissioners, said it had ordered internal investigations of allegations of mistreatment at the Crawford County jail and that those investigations determined all allegations were unfounded.
However, the Crawford County jail has had the death of a corrections officer in 2010; and a federal lawsuit filed against the county by the family of an inmate who died at the jail in 2008.
Schultz said commissioners have the right to call for an independent probe or the majority of the seven-member board could call for one.
Sheriff Nick Hoke, the seventh member of the county’s prison board, was out of the office Thursday and unable to be contacted.