Department head says move would alleviate overcrowding in main prison

Last updated: July 17. 2014 12:00AM - 2562 Views
By - jandes@timesleader.com

Luzerne County Correctional Services Division Head J. Allen Nesbitt wants to explore housing female inmates at the county's former juvenile detention center in Wilkes-Barre, which has been vacant since 2002.
Luzerne County Correctional Services Division Head J. Allen Nesbitt wants to explore housing female inmates at the county's former juvenile detention center in Wilkes-Barre, which has been vacant since 2002.
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Luzerne County Correctional Services Division Head J. Allen Nesbitt has revived a proposal to convert the vacant county juvenile detention center into a prison for female inmates.

The renovation, estimated at $6 million, would free up space in the overcrowded main prison and put a nearby building that’s been vacant for years back into productive use, Nesbitt said.

The county’s aging prison on Water Street in Wilkes-Barre typically houses around 80 women on a separate floor that has 96 beds. Male inmates can’t be mixed with females, which means beds on the female floor often go unused, Nesbitt said.

For example, the prison had 86 female inmates Wednesday, leaving 10 vacant beds.

Meanwhile, Nesbitt has warned county council members he may be forced to request funding to house inmates in other county prisons next year due to overcrowding.

The Water Street prison was designed to hold 505 inmates and has had an average population ranging from 499 to 510 this year to date. The population was 519 Wednesday, Nesbitt said.

Costly housing

Payment for outside beds due to overcrowding has added up in the past, costing county taxpayers $589,400 in 2008.

“I don’t know if this proposal is going to go anywhere, but we’re going to have to do something soon,” Nesbitt said.

Nesbitt included the female prison in a suggested menu of capital projects that county Manager Robert Lawton presented to county council Tuesday night.

The cost of proposed projects far exceeds the $18 million in past-borrowed funds available to spend on capital needs when potential technology enhancements, courthouse interior restoration, a records storage building, road and bridge work and other repairs to county properties are factored in.

Lawton encouraged his division heads to propose projects for council’s consideration but said Wednesday he does not personally support investing one-third of the remaining capital funds on the detention center project at this time.

With more than $400 million in outstanding debt, the county may not be in a position to borrow more for years.

While relocating female inmates could create breathing room to avoid the cost of housing male inmates outside the county, the cost of renovating and staffing the detention center would be higher, Lawton said.

“I don’t believe the proposal is cost efficient because there’s no proof it will save money,” Lawton said.

He’s also against adding another building to the prison campus, which also includes a minimal offender’s building designed to hold 236. This building, which is used for inmates with lower-grade offenses, has been averaging 172 to 202 inmates this year and had 208 occupants on Wednesday.

Lawton also said he supports addressing overcrowding through increased use of alternative programs that keep some offenders out of the prison, such as a day reporting center and drug court.

Violent offenders

However, Nesbitt told council members the prison holds many violent offenders, some involved in gang activity, who must remain behind bars. Other offenders don’t qualify for such programs.

The best option would be a new prison, Lawton said, but he won’t consider pursuing that possibility unless there’s strong evidence the savings from staffing reductions and other efficiencies would exceed construction costs, which have been projected at $100 million by prior administrations.

“I don’t know if or when a new prison would be on the table,” Lawton said.

Located along River Street atop a hill between the county courthouse and prison, the former detention center was built in 1937 as a women’s prison but later reprogrammed to house juveniles awaiting adjudication.

The juvenile center closed in 2002, when former county Judge Michael Conahan said it was not fit for habitation and stopped sending youths there. The state concluded the building passed inspection and was “safe and satisfactory to house juveniles,” but Conahan returned the center’s license to the state without the knowledge of county commissioners at the time, forcing its closure.

Conahan and former county judge Mark Ciavarella were later jailed for receiving kickbacks linked to their support of two privately owned juvenile detention centers in Pittston Township and Butler County.

Vacant, unheated

The county’s three-story detention building is structurally sound but deteriorating because it’s vacant and unheated, county officials have said.

Leaks aren’t a problem because it has a newer roof, but officials said its possibilities for reuse are limited because the structure has a choppy layout, limited parking and a view of the prison and its surrounding barbed wire fencing.

Past prison warden Gene Fischi pushed for reuse of the building to house female inmates in 2003 to free up space in the main facility, but commissioners didn’t allocate the funding. Past estimates to refurbish the structure have ranged from $2 million up to $10 million.

Nesbitt said he and county Operational Services Division Head Tanis Manseau inspected the center this week.

“It is not as deteriorated as it may appear from the outside,” Nesbitt said.

The county also could explore purchasing or building a warehouse structure for female inmates, which may cost less than the detention center rehabilitation, Nesbitt said.

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