By Keith Gushard
Beatings of at least three inmates at the Crawford County jail took place in the summer of 2009, according to a public critic of county jail operations.
Sam Byrd Jr. of Meadville made the accusations at Thursday’s board meeting of the Crawford County Board of Commissioners in public criticism of an independent review of Crawford County jail operations conducted by representatives of the National Institute of Corrections.
Commissioner Chairman Francis Weiderspahn Jr. said Thursday the county would look into the accusations.
The NIC, an agency within the Federal Bureau of Prisons, had two representatives interview inmates, jail personnel and members of the public including Byrd. The NIC representatives also reviewed records during a two-day visit to the facility in March.
The NIC, which has no official jurisdiction over county jails and can only make recommendations, issued a report in April on county jail operations that found room for improvement in staff training and inmate grievance procedures, and noted the jail’s improving inmate health care situation.
However, the report found the Crawford County jail in Saegertown “is a very well-run facility.”
Byrd took issue with the report Thursday, noting the “report was quite lengthy and thorough,” but added “inspections are not investigations.”
Byrd said the reviewers “were unable to verify the information that they were given — so they, therefore, took it at face value.”
Byrd claims that in July 2009, two inmates, Josh Whitman and John Butterfield, were “brutally beaten” following a visit to the jail by Byrd, who at that time was an official visitor with the Pennsylvania Prison Society, a group that advocates for inmates.
Byrd also claims that on July 14, 2009, another inmate, Robert Lee, was “savagely beaten” by six to nine corrections officers. Byrd claims Lee was beaten, subjected to a Taser stun gun and dragged from his cell by corrections officers.
Byrd claims Lee was kicked in the head, face, sides and stomach by officers and then Lee was placed by officers in a restraint chair for 24 hours.
“I don’t think that’s appropriate behavior,” Byrd told county commissioners Thursday. “Mr. Lee can speak for himself. I’m only reporting what I was told of his injuries by him at that time.”
Lee wasn’t at Thursday’s meeting of county commissioners.
“There are many, many, many instances of those kinds of accounts,” Byrd said. “If that is what we define as a well-run facility, we have a major problem. Those are the things I ask to be addressed.”
“We’ll certainly look into it,” Weiderspahn told the Tribune following Thursday’s meeting, in regard to the allegations. “I know the NIC when they were here interviewed Mr. Byrd. I would guess he told them about those things.”
Weiderspahn said he’d contact Warden Tim Lewis of the county jail as well as the NIC representatives about whether those allegations were brought to their attention.
Asked whether there may be credence to the allegations of inmate beatings, Weiderspahn said he wasn’t sure.
“There have been other things said to have happened — much lesser allegations of course — and they were proved not to be true, not totally false, but blown out of proportion,” Weiderspahn said.
All three county commissioners — Weiderspahn, Jack Lynch and C. Sherman Allen — voiced support for an independent review. The trio also serve on the seven-member 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.
In January, the Crawford County Prison Board agreed to have the National Institute of Corrections review jail operations at no cost to the county in response to a small group of critics which publicly has raised concerns about the jail’s operations following a handful of high-profile incidents at the jail over the past few years.
Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.