County’s prison budget dissected

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

June 18, 2013

Luzerne County must take a “hard-and-fast” approach negotiating the next prison union contract, the county’s new Correctional Services Division Head J. Allen Nesbitt told council Tuesday.

The pact covering roughly 280 of the 302 prison employees expires the end of this year. The current contract provides six personal days, 12 holidays and 18 sick days in addition to vacation leave.

Nesbitt singled out personal days as a particular problem because the contract says they must be granted, even if it means someone else must be assigned overtime to cover minimum manning needs. The prison already used up 79 percent of its $400,000 overtime allocation as of May 30.

Contract negotiations start next month, he said. The union has the right to binding arbitration if negotiations reach an impasse.

“We need to make some changes in that and hopefully get some concessions which will reduce overtime dollars,” Nesbitt told council during its first monthly budget work session, which focused on the prison.

Council members questioned Nesbitt and his staff for two hours on the prison’s $29.5 million budget, which is the second highest county expense. Some of their questions, along with the responses:

What changes could make the prison more efficient?

The aging, five-story prison requires more staffing than a modern facility. County officials are studying whether the cost of a new facility would be offset by resulting staffing reductions and savings on building upkeep, but the administration won’t complete that analysis for about a year.

Are inmates providing community service?

Inmates spent 1,635 hours providing assistance to nonprofit and government organizations this year to date, and Nesbitt plans to increase that. Assignments are based on requests from these entities.

How long do most inmates remain at the county prison?

The average length of stay is 64 days. An average 779 offenders are committed and released from the prison system each month.

Is privatizing services an option?

Nesbitt is exploring the potential savings and benefits of outsourcing food services, the prison commissary and the transport of inmates to the state prison. He stressed he has not reached conclusions on any of these options, though he does not believe it will be cheaper to pay an outside company to provide meals for inmates.

Are the courts receptive to alternative sentencing programs that keep offenders out of prison?

Nesbitt plans to discuss these programs with court officials but said he is “impressed” Luzerne County is ahead of the curve implementing alternative sentence programs, including a day reporting center, mental health court and drug treatment court that allow offenders to stay home if they follow tailored treatment programs.

The prison population has been declining, but will that trend continue?

A change in “police philosophy” could increase the inmate count, Nesbitt said. For example, the Hazleton Police Department is examining a new program that could result in more drug and gang-related arrests, but Nesbitt said he hopes that program is successful even if it could have a “serious impact” on the county prison.

Kingston resident Brian Shiner, one of several citizens who attended the session, advised county officials to explore budget reductions that don’t include a new prison because the county still owes more than $400 million from past borrowing.

“Let’s stop the pie -in-the-sky stuff and get something we can actually eat,” Shiner said.