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Westmoreland County Prison overcrowding could send inmates to Indiana, Greene jails

Rich Cholodofsky
| Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017, 4:54 p.m.
The entrance to the Westmoreland County Prison in Hempfield.
Evan Sanders | Tribune-Review
The entrance to the Westmoreland County Prison in Hempfield.

For the first time in the nearly 25 years since Westmoreland County built its prison, inmates may have to be shipped out to other facilities because of overcrowding issues.

County commissioners on Thursday approved contracts with Indiana and Greene counties to house overflow prisoners from Westmoreland County.

“We're just being prepared. Right now, we are below capacity,” Commissioner Gina Cerilli said.

The Hempfield facility on South Grande Boulevard can house up to 711 inmates. As of Thursday morning, it had 691 inmates listed, although Warden John Walton said 668 were being housed there while another 23 were in court and out of the facility for other temporary purposes.

Of that total, Walton said the jail had 123 female inmates — 15 more than what can be housed in standard cells. As a result, some of those women sleep on cots in the jail's gymnasium.

“We might have to ship some of them out today to the other counties,” Walton said.

Under terms of the contracts approved Thursday, Westmoreland County will pay Indiana County $55 a day per inmate. Greene County will be paid $50 per day.

Commissioners said they don't have estimates as to what it could ultimately cost the county to house its inmates elsewhere.

“Our goal is to never have to use it,” Commissioner Ted Kopas said.

But officials conceded that the number of inmates could continue to rise as law enforcement agencies crack down on drug-related crimes.

County officials have dealt with potential overcrowding issues since the jail opened in 1993. At that time, the facility housed up to 450 inmates, prompting double bunks to be added to most cells to increase capacity.

In 2006, commissioners explored purchasing modular housing units to be installed in the jail's parking lot to deal with potential overcrowding. That plan was abandoned after the inmate population declined.

Commissioners said Thursday there are no plans to build an addition to the jail or to install temporary housing units.

“We're working with the prison staff and with the courts to try to move as many people through the system as we can,” Kopas said.

County judges last week closed the day reporting center in Greensburg, a prison diversionary program that allowed up to 100 criminal defendants to attend probation, drug treatment, education and other classes rather than serve time behind bars. Officials said program participants will be assigned to other external services. It's closing was not expected to impact the jail population , commissioners said.

Still, officials said they are concerned that there is no end in sight to the growing numbers of inmates housed at the county prison.

“We're keeping an eye on public safety,” Commissioner Charles Anderson said. “We will do what we have to do.”

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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