Those who have reviewed an independent review of Crawford County jail operations agree with improving staff training and other suggestions, but a question remains about how to pay for it.
“It was very positive overall,” Chairman Francis Weiderspahn of Crawford County commissioners said Thursday. “Additional training needs to be addressed. As the report points out, it leaves us open to liability issues.”
The 52-page independent report compiled by representatives of the National Institute of Corrections recommended improvements in staff training and handling inmate grievances and noted the jail’s improving inmate health care situation. It was compiled following a two-day visit to the jail in March by NIC representatives who interviewed staff, inmates, prison board members and the public.
The NIC, an agency within the Federal Bureau of Prisons, has no official jurisdiction over county jails, so its investigators only make recommendations, not mandates.
The report, released Wednesday by the county, has concerns about the disparity both in pay and training between per diem staff and full-time staff. Per diem officers are paid $8.50 per hour.
The report said “While we understand the financial issues related to maintaining a pool of full-time employees, it is important for the county to recognize that there can be liability consequences related to cutting corners in staffing and training.”
The jail has a full-time staff of 45 and about 15 per diem workers who are called in on an as-needed basis to fill in for vacations, illness or training.
Weiderspahn said the county’s new human resources director, Mark Lessig, has pointed out to county commissioners the extensive use of per diem employees at the jail.
“We need to use less per diem employees and more full-time staff,” Weiderspahn said. “It may cost us more money now, but liability issues would cost us more in the long run.”
Weiderspahn said county commissioners will have to evaluate the potential impact of additional personnel costs as they move forward this year and for 2014.
Francis Schultz, Crawford County’s district attorney and chairman of the Crawford County Prison Board, was pleased with the report and agreed with its recommendations.
“I’m in favor of per diem employees being paid more equally with full-time employees,” Schultz said Thursday. “They’re doing the same job and need the equal amount of training as well, but where we come up with the money is up to the county commissioners.”
“Not to say we’re not training employees, but we need more documentation and regular training,” Schultz said.
The report recommends staff training be improved with a formalized annual training plan identifying all training to be presented. That plan should include when training will be, who will teach it, the number of hours required, lesson plans and extensive record keeping.
Training should also include a designated training coordinator; a review of all policy and procedures for new employees; and a self-directed learning resource center of books, magazines and videos on jail topics, according to the report.
Warden Tim Lewis, too, said he would like to see more training, additional full-time staff and higher pay for per diem workers.
“They (per diems) are doing the same job and laying their lives on the line,” Lewis said.
Lewis said the jail already has implemented procedures to better track follow-up on inmate grievances.
The report said the process for inmates to submit grievances is sufficient. The report found there should be better tracking of follow-ups, noting there was no sign-off by the warden’s office.
Lewis said the jail now has instituted a sign-off procedure on all grievances by the warden’s office.
The report also noted the jail hasn’t made preparations to implement procedures under the Prison Rape Elimination Act that goes into effect Aug. 20.
However, Lewis said the jail is awaiting notification of training dates and locations from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
Schultz, Lewis and Weiderspahn said the hiring of PrimeCare Medical Inc. in October to handle the jail’s medical needs has substantially reduced inmate complaints on medical care — a fact that was noted in the NIC report.
Connie Lee of Meadville, who has been a public critic of jail operations at meetings of the Crawford County commissioners, said the report was positive though she stressed any concerns about specific allegations were not investigated.
“I’m extremely happy to see a call for training in the report,” Lee said. “I think any improvement in (staff) training is exciting.
“Any conflict between inmates and staff begins and ends with training,” she continued. “The report found any guards engaged in misconduct should face consequences.
“I believe Warden Lewis will implement as much as possible,” she said.
Sam Byrd Jr. of Meadville, another public critic of jail operations, was contacted at midday Thursday by the Tribune, but he declined comment until he had read the report. Byrd said he was in the process of obtaining a copy when he was contacted. Tribune attempts to contact Byrd late Thursday afternoon were unsuccessful.
The report found the Crawford County jail “is a very well-run facility.”
“I was hoping that would be the kind of review we’d get,” Weiderspahn said. “There was not anything super glaringly wrong. The warden and deputy warden and staff have done a fine job.”
Those comments were echoed by Schultz, who said, “It (the report) came to the conclusion I felt it would come to — that it’s a very well-run facility.”
Schultz also noted two findings by the reviewers.
“Four inmates interviewed indicated they had been treated far better in Crawford County than other places they had been incarcerated,” Schultz said. “The report also found inmates said they felt safe and secure in the jail. That flies in the face of many of the accusations made by certain members of the public.”
Schultz, too, commended the jail’s administration and staff.
“It (the report) reflects what I’ve known for a long-time — it’s well-run,” Schultz said.
Weiderspahn and Schultz both said they expect the report to be reviewed by the Crawford County Prison Board at its meeting on April 25.
Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.
A full copy of the National Institute of Corrections report on the Crawford County Correctional Facility is available at meadvilletribune.com.