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Private firm may get keys to prison

| Monday, May 14, 2012, 5:08 p.m.

By the end of the week, a private management firm could be in charge of the day-to-day operation of the Westmoreland County Prison - at least on a temporary basis, the chairman of the prison board said.

Tom Ceraso, who also serves as a county commissioner, said the prison board will hold a special meeting at 9:45 a.m. Thursday to discuss hiring Cornell Companies Inc. to run the jail for four months until the board decides its next step.

The Houston, Texas-based company would, among other things, conduct an internal investigation for the board and recommend if any employees should be disciplined for violating prison policy.

The prison board will only recommend whether to hire Cornell. The actual hiring must be voted on by commissioners Ceraso, Tom Balya and P. Scott Conner.

All three commissioners, District Attorney John Peck, Controller Jeff Pavetti and Sheriff Chris Scherer serve on the prison board.

The commissioners are to meet immediately after the prison board to vote on the Cornell contract.

The prison board has been searching for a way to conduct an internal probe of the lockup since last summer after state police arrested convicted drug dealer Ronald Whethers and members of his drug network - including two prison guards - and charged them with helping Whethers sell drugs while he was an inmate.

The arrests sparked a state grand jury investigation that found the prison was rife with security problems, lacked discipline and was plagued by poor management.

The grand jury also determined Whethers, formerly of Fayette County, exercised an extraordinary amount of control over prison operations, earning him the sobriquet 'little warden.'

Ceraso said Cornell will provide a warden and a director of security, who will be based at the jail. The regular complement of deputy wardens, sergeants and lieutenants will be retained and will continue working for the county.

'We want somebody to look at the operations for four months and do the internal investigation. We need somebody with the experience to do that,' Ceraso said.

Depending on the findings of Cornell's investigation, Ceraso said, the prison board could take further disciplinary action against staff members.

'We're not going to privatize the prison,' Ceraso said. 'We just want them to run it, review our policies and do the internal investigation.

'Cornell is a very good fit for what we want to do,' he added.

Ceraso said the temporary contract will give the prison board more time to deliberate and decide if members want to offer Cornell a long-term deal or hire their own warden to replace Kurt Scalzott, who was fired in December.

Cornell operates in 13 states, managing 72 juvenile and adult prisons, halfway houses and treatment centers. Stock in Cornell is publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

In Pennsylvania, it purchased Abraxas Inc., a drug treatment facility, and on Feb. 1 begins managing the Herbert A. Schaffner Youth Center in Harrisburg. The contract with Dauphin County guarantees the company annual revenues of $600,000.

The tentative plan to have a private company run the Westmoreland lockup doesn't go far enough, Conner said.

In addition to managing inmates, he wants a private company to oversee the medical and food departments. He also believes corrections officers should be employees of the private firm rather than the county.

The grand jury reported that Whethers had used the medical unit as a meeting place with other inmates and that the kitchen provided special food for Whethers and some of his cohorts on orders from prison officials.

The county and members of Local 522 of the United Mine Workers of America, which represents guards, have been negotiating for months with the county over a new contract that would increase pay, time off and benefits for its members.

When negotiations reached an impasse, contract discussions were headed for arbitration, but the county and union have continued negotiating.

The union will hold two meetings on Monday at the Carbon Volunteer Fire Department in Hempfield Township so union officials can brief members on the progress of the talks.

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