Prison being built in suburban Philadelphia

| Sunday, June 2, 2013, 7:36 p.m.

SKIPPACK — More than eight decades after a state prison was built at Graterford, work has begun on a $400 million replacement for the structure in suburban Montgomery County.

The Philadelphia Inquirer said a contractor has been using cranes to stack prefab concrete cells poured in nearby Telford into cellblocks for the Skippack Township complexes to be called Phoenix I and II, which will open in 2015.

Troy Thompson, spokesman for the state Department of General Services, said the project will be the second-most-expensive facility built by the commonwealth, exceeded only by the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

“This is the city's prison,” state Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said of the state prison closest to Philadelphia, from which more than one-quarter of Pennsylvania prisoners come, although it has only about one-eighth of the state's population.

The prison will have buildings for women and death-row inmates, who are taken to prisons on the other side of the commonwealth. The layout for the general prison population and offenders who spend most of their time in solitary confinement will be easier to monitor, and meeting space for education and counseling will be doubled.

Graterford superintendent Michael Wenerowicz said he was looking forward to more single rooms with air conditioning, which officials said was especially important for those being treated for mental illness, and roofs that don't leak.

But the Graterford structure, built 84 years ago to house thousands of offenders crowding the old Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, will be mothballed rather than demolished, so it could be used again.

The work follows four years of design changes as well as contractor lawsuits and other delays.

“My first instinct was to pull the plug,” said Wetzel, recalling cost-cutting directives from Gov. Tom Corbett. “My assumption was we were not going to build this.”

But Wetzel said his aides convinced him that it could cost less to staff and manage a new prison than the old one.

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