Cramped Fayette jail plagued with problems
From behind the bars of a dormitory-style cell she shares with 31 other women on the fourth floor of the Fayette County Prison, inmate Cassandra Poling on Friday described the living conditions at the 124-year-old lockup.
“They got women sleeping on the floor,” Poling said, clutching the bars as her cellmates listened, some nodding in agreement, others shouting to be heard above the constant hum of a large floor fan used to cool the cramped, confined space. “They got cockroaches. They got rats, and there's no tables, so you eat on the floor.
“It's terrible,” said Poling, who court records show is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to several drug offenses and a bribery charge. “I've seen dogs housed in better environments.”
Poling was one of several inmates who spoke with the Tribune-Review during a tour of the jail, which was arranged through county officials who in recent months have stressed the need for a new prison.
Commissioners have not voted to build a new jail, but Al Ambrosini and Vincent Zapotosky last month commissioned a $24,000 study to determine the daily per-inmate cost of building a prison versus renovating the facility or taking no action.
Ambrosini chairs a prison working group that is exploring the idea of a new county jail. Its findings are nonbinding, but the group has so far narrowed a possible location down to three sites and made informal recommendations on programs the facility should accommodate to try to stop recidivism.
On Friday, the jail's three-room women's quarters was filled to capacity, according to Bill Simon, a corrections officer of 12 years. Seven female inmates were sent that day to stay in rented cells in nearby Greene County, he said.
In six cellblocks restricted to male housing, overcrowding was evident. Men are housed two each in 6-by-9 cells originally designed to hold just one inmate. Others are assigned to sleep on large, plastic, tub-like “boats” placed on the floors of each cellblock. One range alone had six male inmates assigned to the boats.
One inmates who was housed in a cell, 19-year-old Zachary Leonard, said cockroaches and spiders are common cellmates.
“I killed a cockroach on the floor last night,” said Leonard, who according to online court records is serving sentences for drug, theft and related charges.
Jimmie “Bud” Rivero, a 31-year-old Daisytown man who is awaiting trial on charges he raped a 12-year-old girl, said Fayette's jail is not the first prison where he has been incarcerated. Fayette's lockup is “way different” from others, Rivero said, and needs to be replaced because of its age .
“But it's jail,” Rivero said. “It ain't gonna be like you're in a motel, that's for sure.”
Other problems include a leaky roof that at times sends water rushing down a metal stairwell between the floors, Simon said. On Friday, following a light downpour, water dripped from the stairwell ceiling into a small puddle on one of the landings.
“They patch it, but it just starts leaking again,” Simon said. “Sometimes, there will be so much water here, it's rolling down the steps”
Windows on the cellblocks, located beyond inmates' reach, hang open in the summer because most of the building does not have air conditioning. When outdoor temperatures reach into the 90s, the inmates' cells and areas where the corrections officers work easily hit 80 degrees, Simon said.
The jail's 18-inch-thick, sandstone walls hold the heat like an oven, Simon said, affecting inmates and guards alike.
“We're soaking wet, and they're soaking wet,” Simon said. “You really can't blame them for being irritable.”
In winter, guards place duct tape on the windows to block cold air, Simon said, but the Band-Aid fix doesn't help.
“A lot of times in the winter, you'll see your breath in here,” Simon said.
Simon said safety is a concern because cellblocks are not designed for guards to see inmates at all times. A 2012 inspection report prepared by the state Department of Corrections notes that guards can see into most cells only by making rounds.
“Inmates are not directly supervised because of the catwalks around the housing areas,” the report notes. “Visibility is limited into the cells. Inmates are observed, minimally, when rounds are conducted on adjacent catwalks.”
Guards can look down the ranges from their posts at the end of each cellblock to observe inmates in a common area, Simon said, but they rely on other methods to keep tabs on activities inside the cells when they are not making rounds on the catwalks.
“The veteran officers will go more by sound than sight,” Simon said. “Our ears will let us know, with every little noise, if there's a scuffle back there, or if someone's trying to make a shank,” knife-like weapons inmates fashion from common materials.
Simon said the biggest concern among the officers is overcrowding.
“We're not set up for the population we have,” Simon said. “It makes it unsafe for us. It makes it unsafe for them.”
Warden Brian Miller said he shares the same concern, with the jail continually forced to send inmates to stay in rented cells as far away as State College to address overcrowding.
The prison was built to house 76 inmates, but it is now approved for 262 . On Friday, it was at a maximum capacity of 262 inmates in house, Miller said, with 92 in rented cells in other counties.
Although the building is old and has maintenance issues, Miller said the need for a new prison centers more on overcrowding and the cramped facility's lack of common areas that could be used for programs aimed at reducing recidivism.
“People say the building is old, dilapidated and falling in. It doesn't have nice, pretty walls, but the walls are sturdy. Our problem is, there's no space,” he said.
The Department of Corrections noted that deficiency in its report.
“With virtually no activities or out-of-cell time, all the inmates have is time, which is not well spent when they get busy destroying lights, ceilings, and bedding,” it says.
A small chapel serves as the only area where inmates can meet for GED classes or to attend meetings such as Narcotics Anonymous. Too often, Miller said, such meetings have to be canceled or delayed because the room is used to house prisoners.
“We have hundreds of volunteers who want to come in here and teach these classes, but where would they do it?” Miller said.
Miller said that if a new jail is built, one of the keys to reducing recidivism will be to ensure it has adequate space for programs to help inmates establish lives outside prison walls.
“We don't want to build a building with just cells,” Miller said. “You broke the law. They removed you from society because you couldn't follow the rules. Now, we need to educate you, so when you go out, you're not going to do what you did to get here in the first place.”
Liz Zemba is a reporter for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or firstname.lastname@example.org.