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State Corrections leader offers help during tour of aging Fayette County Prison

| Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013, 3:00 p.m.
Evan R. Sanders | Tribune-Review
John Wetzel, Secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, speaks with Fayette County Prison moves from one range to another while taking a tour of the Fayette County Prison on Friday, November 15, 2013.
Evan R. Sanders | Tribune-Review
John Wetzel (left), Secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and Regional Deputy Secretary for the PA Department of Corrections Dan Burns conversates with kitchen staff in the kitchen while taking a tour of the Fayette County Prison on Friday, November 15, 2013.
Evan R. Sanders | Tribune-Review
Fayette County Prison Warden Brian Miller (left) speaks with John Wetzel (center), Secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, as Regional Deputy Secretary for the PA Department of Corrections Dan Burns walks through the range while touring the Fayette County Prison, in Uniontown on Friday, November 15, 2013.
Evan R. Sanders | Tribune-Review
John Wetzel (front left), Secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, speaks with Fayette County Prison Warden Brian Miller (right) while touring the Fayette County Prison, in Uniontown on Friday, November 15, 2013. Secretary Wetzel along with Warden Miller were accompanied by Fayette County Commissioner Al Ambrosini (from back left to right), Chaplain Terry Saunders, Superintendent at SCI Fayette Brian Coleman, and Regional Deputy Secretary for the PA Department of Corrections Dan Burns.

State Corrections Secretary John Wetzel toured the almost 125-year-old Fayette County Prison on Friday and assured county commissioners that he would help them in their quest to reduce recidivism.

“Nobody enjoys spending money on corrections, but it's a special duty of government,” Wetzel said. “We'll do the best we can to work with you. We want to be partners and help out wherever we can.”

A new county prison would solve problems related to overcrowding and housing inmates out of county, while allowing the staff to spend more time rehabilitating prisoners, Fayette Commission Chairman Al Ambrosini told Wetzel.

Wetzel and other Corrections officials toured the prison with Ambrosini; Warden Brian Miller; state Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-South Union; prison Chaplain Terry Sanders; and others.

“The decision is economics,” Ambrosini told Wetzel, adding that as inmates get General Educational Development diplomas, learn job skills and end recidivism — “all of that, you get along with a modern, efficient facility.”

“It's something we need to do,” Ambrosini added. “It's as simple as that.”

Ambrosini told Wetzel, who served as warden of the Franklin County Jail when a new lockup was built there, that housing Fayette prisoners in other counties generates additional expenses for transportation and overtime for staff.

“That creates a logistical nightmare for the management of this facility,” he said.

Ambrosini and fellow Democratic Commissioner Vince Zapotosky invited Wetzel to tour the facility several weeks ago.

State Corrections officials inspected the prison last week, but Fayette officials have not yet learned the results.

Ambrosini and Zapotosky, who went on part of the tour using a cane because of recent knee surgery, support building a new prison, while Republican Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink says other steps can be taken to avoid constructing a facility.

County officials are looking at a prison that would have up to 480 beds and cost about $31 million.

“We're looking at building so we don't have to add on for 10 years,” Ambrosini said.

Miller estimates that 45 inmates are being housed elsewhere at an average cost of “$80,000 a month,” plus transportation and overtime expenses. The county generally has about 240 prisoners on-site and is considering building a temporary jail in Uniontown to house female prisoners.

Miller said he would like to alleviate recidivism, and a larger facility with more space would help.

“We've got to ... break this cycle that they keep coming back,” the warden said.

The Corrections Department will do what it can to help, Wetzel said.

Zimmerlink said a new prison is not needed and county officials need to give more time for newer programs, such as mental health, veterans and drug courts, to work.

She maintains that the overcrowding figures cited by others were inflated.

If a new prison is needed, she said, then the county should build a smaller prison annex on the courthouse grounds, use empty Uniontown buildings or bring in modular pods used by other prisons for housing.

“We can address the overcrowding and recidivism by other means, rather than building a brand-new facility,” Zimmerlink said.

Bob Stiles is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-6622 or bstiles@tribweb.com.

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