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Westmoreland officials look to portable pod to relieve jail overcrowding

Rich Cholodofsky
| Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017, 12:30 p.m.
The entrance to the Westmoreland County Prison in Hempfield.
Evan Sanders | Tribune-Review
The entrance to the Westmoreland County Prison in Hempfield.
State Correctional Institution Greensburg located along Route 119 in Hempfield Twp.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
State Correctional Institution Greensburg located along Route 119 in Hempfield Twp.

Portable housing pods could provide relief for potential overcrowding at the Westmore­land County Prison.

County commissioners said Wednesday that preliminary negotiations have taken place with the owners of the former SCI Greensburg in Hempfield, located just over a hill from the jail, to acquire one of the vacant housing units at the closed state prison.

“It's something to consider with the potential for overcrowding and population growth at the jail,” Commissioner Ted Kopas said.

Jail overcrowding has been a major concern for county officials as the number of inmates housed at the South Grande Boulevard lockup has steadily increased during the past year.

Capacity at the jail is 711 inmates. As the facility's population climbed closer to that number, commissioners this month signed deals to have overflow inmates housed at jails in Greene and Indiana counties.

Warden John Walton said inmate population has leveled off over the past several weeks, enabling the county to hold off on prisoner transfers.

On Wednesday, the West­moreland jail held 654 inmates. But officials anticipate that the number of inmates will rise again.

Each portable unit at the former state prison site could house up to 150 additional inmates, Walton said.

The warden said one unit is about 7,800 square feet and could house inmates in dormitory-style accommodations rather than individual cells. It could be installed in a parking lot behind the county jail.

“Once we made the step to look at the possibility of shipping out inmates, we now have to look at other avenues that are the most cost effective to the county,” Walton said.

Installing a portable housing unit would require the county to hire about six full-time guards, Walton said.

Commissioners said they have to determine what it would cost to buy the unit and assess whether it will be cheaper than paying $50 to $55 a day to send overflow inmates to other county jails.

“I am certainly willing to consider it,” Commissioner Gina Cerilli said.

A second option to deal with overcrowding would involve building an addition to the jail. Walton said that could cost as much as $8 million and that commissioners aren't seriously considering it.

A plan to build a third floor, at a cost of about $1 million, was rejected when the jail was built 25 years ago.

New owners of the former state prison have announced plans to convert the facility to a veteran's treatment center. County officials said the owners offered to donate prison supplies, equipment and furniture to the county jail.

Robert Wright, a project manager with Stantec, an international project services firm hired to oversee the veteran's center project at the former state prison, could not be reached for comment.

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

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