Fayette committee to investigate direction of county's prison

| Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013, 10:30 p.m.

A Fayette County group that is exploring ways to improve prison operations on Thursday discussed possible locations for a new jail.

County Commissioner Al Ambrosini organized the panel in November. Its members meet monthly to report on progress individual teams have made regarding ways to improve prison operations.

The group's recommendations — which will include suggestions for everything from implementing mental health and drug and alcohol programs to building a prison — are to be presented to the prison board by the end of the year, Ambrosini said.

Leader Jim Killinger said the architectural team met with three firms that specialize in building prisons. All recommended that the county move quickly, if it intends to build a prison, because costs will only increase.

“We have to find property, and we have to find it now,” Killinger said.

Killinger said each firm nixed the idea of renovating the existing, overcrowded 124-year-old prison located behind the courthouse in Uniontown.

“They just shook their heads at us,” Killinger said. “They've been in that prison. It's not cost-effective.”

Controller Sean Lally, a member of the group, identified the former Army Reserve Center on Route 21, across from Uniontown Hospital, as a possible site. He sent a letter to the Army's Reserve Installation Management Directorate seeking to secure for the county sole-source bidding rights.

He emphasized that commissioners would have to approve any attempt to acquire the property, with his letter serving only as a first step.

The county has explored the idea of building a prison for more than a decade.

One study, completed in 2001, estimated renovation costs to house up to 750 inmates at $28.5 million. By 2004, cost for the same plan had risen to $36.8 million.

The county jail was designed to hold 66 inmates. Through renovations over the years and the addition of an annex, it can now accommodate 282 inmates.

To alleviate overcrowding, the county pays rental fees to house inmates in neighboring counties' jails. Fayette spent $710,000 in 2012 on those costs, Lally said.

Other options aimed at reducing overcrowding have included a proposal to establish an adult day reporting center to give judges an alternative to prison sentences. The program is on hold while commissioners determine whether the courts will use the program.

Liz Zemba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or lzemba@tribweb.com.

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