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Film crew opens doors to county jails Justice Department still being denied access to the facilities

Actor Keanu Reeves got in.

The U.S. Justice Department still has not.

Reeves and an entourage were poking around Buffalo and Erie County last weekend, scouting locations for a new Reeves movie.

Courtrooms. Banks. Streetscapes.

And jail cells.

The sheriff's Jail Management Division, according to witnesses, welcomed the Reeves crew at both the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden and the Holding Center in Buffalo.

The filmmakers sauntered through both lockups as they envisioned "Henry's Crime," which according to the industry magazine Variety casts Reeves as a big-hearted guy wrongly accused of robbing a Buffalo bank.

Reeves had the star power to enter the jails -- and exit -- at his request. Others have done so, too: judges, state inspectors and even reporters in the past.

For more than a year, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division has sought access to the Holding Center and Correctional Facility to investigate their conditions under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, or CRIPA.

But the Justice Department is no Keanu Reeves, or some filmmaker who can put Buffalo in his spotlight. Nor does Reeves represent a federal agency researching a lawsuit against Erie County over inmate conditions.

On the advice of County Attorney Cheryl A. Green, Sheriff Timothy B. Howard and County Executive Chris Collins have barred the federal investigators from Erie County's jails unless county lawyers can tag along as they interview inmates.

Green said Monday the sheriff probably should have barred Reeves and company, too.

"Had the sheriff consulted this office, we would have denied this request," Green said.

She said media are being kept away because she does not want media personnel and tapes subpoenaed by the federal government.

Despite being barred, the Civil Rights Division in July completed a 50-page report that related tales of inmate abuses, including the sexual abuse of inmates, and described episodes of poor management in the jails. The report concluded that Erie County has not protected the rights of inmates.

Green predicts the Justice Department wants to impose expensive improvements in the treatment of inmates, and the upgrades will burden Erie County taxpayers and exceed court-tested constitutional requirements.

"Prisoners cannot expect, and the county is not expected to provide, the amenities, conveniences and services of a good hotel," she told the Justice Department in a letter last week.

"We are serving the taxpayers better by denying the Justice Department access to those facilities," she said Monday.

Around town this weekend, Reeves had camera shutters snapping.

"Yes, Keanu Reeves was in town for the weekend," said Timothy Clark, the Buffalo Niagara film commissioner, who helps bring moviemakers to the area. "He and the producers had a successful trip scouting locations. . . . They thank the City of Buffalo and surrounding area for their warm welcome."

Dale May, of Amherst, said he was with his girlfriend at about 5:30 p.m. Sunday when she spotted Reeves outside Dwyer's Irish Pub near the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda.

The movie folks were apparently scouting locations on Webster Street. When Reeves came into the pub, May bought him a Guinness and he took it out to the patio.

There were about a dozen people in the place and the actor was friendly to everybody.

"I thought it was kind of cool that he was wearing a T-shirt with the Buffalo Fire Department emblem," May said.

Clark said Reeves left Monday for the Toronto Film Festival, where he would attend a screening of Rebecca Miller's film, "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee." He stars alongside Robin Wright Penn and Alan Arkin.

News Staff Reporter Tom Buckham contributed to this report.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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