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Butler jail officials say they have room for more prisoners

| Sunday, March 25, 2012

Butler County is putting up a "rooms for rent" sign at its county prison with the hope of recruiting state and federal prisoners.

"I'd like to give you a flowery answer, but it's simply because we have empty beds and especially for the federal government, it's convenient," Warden Richard Shaffer said. "And it's a profitable venture for us."

Butler County officials in 2009 opened the 564-bed prison, anticipating a steep rise in the number of inmates as the county population grows. But the daily average of 350 inmates, which includes about 50 state and federal prisoners, leaves plenty of room.

"We overbuilt the jail so we could grow into it," former Warden Richard P. Gigliotti said. "Shortly after we opened it, we asked ... the state for 200 inmates. While we have the room, why not take advantage of the space, and we could recoup millions."

State and federal governments pay counties board prisoners. The state can ease overcrowding in its prisons by sending inmates to county lockups; the federal government can house inmates before trials or sentencing. County governments get money to help pay for the jails.

Butler County's $10 million annual prison budget this year depends on fees for 50 state and federal inmates providing about $1.1 million. Last year, said Controller John McMillin, the county budgeted nearly the same amount but received about $700,000.

The jail employs enough staff to cover a full house, Shaffer said: 84 full-time and 23 part-time corrections officers and 10 administrators. No matter how many state and federal inmates arrive, the county would not have to hire anyone, he said.

Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal Michael Baughman, who coordinates housing of federal prisoners for the Western District of Pennsylvania, said Butler is not alone in trying to fill beds.

"It comes and goes, depending on who has space," Baughman said. "They're anxious, obviously, if they have the capacity and they'd like to fill it."

Butler County Sheriff Michael Slupe last month persuaded the county to drop a transportation fee it charged to the U.S. Marshals to take inmates to Pittsburgh for federal court appearances, about $75 for trips taken on average three times a week. Slupe hoped that would interest marshals in housing more federal inmates there. The numbers haven't changed, but county officials remain hopeful.

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections budgeted $15.9 million this fiscal year to pay for 1,041 available county jail beds. It expects to pay less than that because the average daily population is nearly one-third less. As of March 18, the department housed 607 prisoners in 14 county jails, including those in Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Indiana and Lawrence counties.

The state spent millions beginning in 2010 to house nearly 2,100 prisoners convicted of nonviolent offenses in Virginia and Michigan because of prison overcrowding, which quickly led to complaints that families couldn't visit inmates located far away and that out-of-state governments benefitted from Pennsylvania tax dollars.

Soon after taking office, Gov. Tom Corbett said the state should spend the money within the commonwealth. Michigan inmates returned in May, and the last of the Virginia inmates came home within a few weeks ago to serve out sentences.

"The new administration looked at everything, including housing inmates," said Corrections Department spokeswoman Susan McNaughton. "We were spending $62 a day to house inmates, and it was also decided it would be better to keep our inmates close to home."

By comparison, daily rates the state pays to counties range from $47 to $60, depending on the contract negotiated.

Baughman said his agency spends $8 million to $9 million annually to house federal inmates in Western Pennsylvania's county jails. The government houses on average 320 to 325 inmates daily in Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Cambria, Erie, and Indiana counties, along with the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown.

The Department of Justice spent $1 billion in fiscal 2011 to house inmates in state and county jails, and $300 million to $350 million for housing in private jails.

Baughman said the government picks local facilities based on location to federal courts and their security levels. Sometimes it uses a jail because several inmates involved in a case must be kept apart for security reasons, he said.

McNaughton said many county lockups offer reentry programs to help soon-to-be released inmates readjust to life outside jail.

"Re-entry is a really big and complex issue," McNaughton said.

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