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Rehabilitation key in county's jail

| Wednesday, April 13, 2005

What county government does

Now through Saturday is National County Government Week. This report is one in a series of articles that will look at portions of the broad array of Armstrong County services that range from keeping families healthy, to caring for the elderly, to support of the court system, to dispatching emergency help, to economic development.

Mitch Fryer, Staff Writer

Ninety-one cameras keep a watchful eye on the new Armstrong County Jail.

A staff of 30 full-time and 17 part-time corrections officers make sure the 130 inmates currently confined there stay locked up behind its walls.

A state-of-the art-security system helps make the jail a safe and more secure facility.

Warden Bill Laughner wouldn't have it any other way.

"Public safety is the number one obligation of county government," said Laughner, who has 29 years of corrections experience and been at the Armstrong County Jail for the past 25 years.

"Citizens expect safety and efficiency from the jail," Laughner said. "We need to keep the community safe from these people getting out of here. We need to keep officers safe from inmates. We need to keep inmates safe from harming each other and themselves."

That takes training, Laughner said. "We train, train and train."

After safety, the next greatest concern for jail administrators is rehabilitation of inmates.

"I believe most inmates want to be rehabilitated," Laughner said. "There are people who come here and never come back but we also have a few that we refer to as doing a life sentence on the installment plan."

The Armstrong County Jail has numerous programs that help with rehabilitation.

The jail provides GED testing, drug and alcohol counseling, a new program in which a person up to the age of 21 can get a traditional high school diploma from the school district they come from, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, a library, church services, a fatherhood training program and a work release program, to name a few.

"It's not a Holiday Inn though," Laughner said. "It's still steel and concrete inside."

Laughner said the entire staff of the jail cares about people and treats inmates the way they would like to be treated themselves.

"I've been in four different county jails and this is the best work release program I've been in," a minimum security inmate said. "I've been treated with dignity and respect here."

With an annual budget of $2.4 million, paid entirely by the county, the jail continues to be kept busy.

Laughner said that in the past year there were 1,328 commitments and 1,271 releases. Males committed totaled 974 and females, 354. The jail's population also includes inmates being housed from other county facilities.

"That's a lot of commitments for a county this size," Laughner said.

The average stay for an inmate is 26 days. The average age of an inmate is 32 years.

The jail actively test inmates for drugs. There were 1,350 drug-tested inmates last year.

Work release inmates are more regularly tested than the general population of the jail. There were 910 work release inmates tested last year and 888 were negative and 22 positive, Laughner said.

"We test our work release inmates a minimum of twice a week," Laughner said. "If they're doing something we're going to catch them."

The number of persons jailed for driving under the influence offenses continues to grow each year. In 2004 there were 143 driving under the influence commitments.

The health of inmates is another concern for jail management.

"A lot of people who come to the jail are in bad shape, a lot have health problems, even young people, because of drug use," Laughner said. "They're in bad shape. We work on helping them with their addictions."

Medical costs can be a big item on the jail's budget.

"That's the one line item that all wardens call the budget buster," Laughner said. "If we get one inmate who can't be released because of serious charges and has medical problems, that can get into hundreds of thousands of dollars."

Now in the second year of operation, the new facility is operating smoothly.

"It takes a year to settle a jail down," Laughner said.

He credits the hard work and dedication of his staff and the support of the county's Prison Board.

"I'm proud of this jail," Laughner said. "It runs well."

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