Fayette County group still weighing options to allieviate overcrowding in jail

Mary Pickels
| Friday, June 21, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

A Fayette County jail advisory group on Thursday initially discarded the possibility of using a closed state prison in Westmoreland County to replace its antiquated, bursting-at-the-seams lockup.

Dunbar Township resident Terry Kriss suggested at Tuesday's county commissioners' meeting that the board consider the recently closed State Correctional Institution at Greensburg as an alternative to building a new facility.

The board ultimately adopted a resolution to spend county money to perform preliminary work for the possible construction of a new county lockup, identifying 15 possible sites within the county.

The mothballed prison in Hempfield is “impractical, both economically and with all of the transportation and liability issues. The size of the facility is not a fit. The supervisory method is not a fit. ... Enough of wasting time now. Let's move forward and talk about the project at hand,” Fayette Commissioner Al Ambrosini said on Thursday.

Also on Thursday, architectural team leader Jim Killinger presented a map marked with the 15 potential sites for possible construction of a new jail.

Included is a German property along Route 21, pitched three years ago by former state Rep. Bill DeWeese as the site of a new state prison. Shortly after Gov. Tom Corbett was sworn into office, the Department of Corrections announced that the prison was unnecessary.

Ambrosini in November organized the jail working group to meet monthly to report on progress individual teams have made regarding ways to improve operations at the lockup.

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

Ambrosini and Killinger said their research determined that the Hempfield prison was closed, in part, because of high operational costs.

The prison layout was constructed before the implementation of new supervisory techniques, and the property requires some renovation, Ambrosini said.

“It's like buying a used vehicle. We are taking on someone else's problems,” said county Controller Sean Lally, financial team leader.

Killinger said the state Department of Corrections offered a tour of the site. “I'm not saying it's off the radar. There is an abundance of problems,” Killinger said.

Transporting inmates for magisterial or court hearings can be expensive and presents a safety issue, group members said.

“That would be, commissioner, my biggest concern,” Fayette Warden Brian Miller said. “Any time you take somebody out of that institution, you are taking a chance. You may not come back.”

Transportation presents potential liability issues, Ambrosini said, from the potential of inmates being injured in accidents to possible escape. Those issues could become moot, he said, through handling court appearances in-house.

Several group members recently visited the Franklin County Jail.

“We were very impressed,” said Lisa Ferris, Fayette County Behavioral Health Administration CEO.

She said the visit led to increased conversation about how a new jail would look and operate. Group members discussed visitation rooms for inmates' children, the number of courtrooms needed, mental health and drug and alcohol treatment, educational options for prisoners and juvenile housing.

Miller said the Franklin County facility has exercise yards on each pod, which could eliminate some of the problems resulting from recreation periods when inmates from different cell blocks mix.

Ambrosini previously said that the current prison's design and overcrowded cells prohibit programming that can help to reduce recidivism.

The county jail can hold a maximum of 262 inmates. As of this week, Lally said, the county had paid more than $500,000 this year in out-of-county housing costs for prisoners, who are sent to jails in other counties.

Ambrosini estimated construction costs for a new jail at $30 million.

Lally noted that if the county were to float a $30 million bond over 30 years at 3.65 percent, the total cost would reach $50 million.

“We can't move forward in the financial arena until we have a site selected,” Lally said Thursday.

“If we as elected officials choose to do nothing, we fail. ... How is this negative in any way?” Lally said.

Killinger reviewed a map of the county showing 15 sites under consideration for a new jail.

Located in Franklin, Luzerne, Dunbar, North Union, German and Georges, each is 20 acres or more.

He said prices range from “reasonable” to “high,” and said no negotiations have taken place.

“We have got to corral one of these sites,” Killinger said.

Financial institutions and vendors have begun contacting county officials about the potential project, group members said.

“Because of the economy, we have the opportunity to get a state-of-the-art prison built and meet the needs of Fayette County at a very reasonable cost,” Ambrosini said.

Mary Pickels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-5401 or mpickels@tribweb.com.

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