Wilkes-Barre’s planning and zoning office has approved Luzerne County’s request to add razor wire to the fence around the prison minimal offenders’ building, officials said.
County Correctional Services Division Head J. Allen Nesbitt told a council committee Tuesday he has no cost estimate for the wire project, which was prompted by two recent escapes. Both inmates were later caught and returned to incarceration.
Nesbitt said he supports the project because the wire-free fence and threat of spending three years in state prison for escape may not be big enough deterrents for the nonviolent offenders housed in the facility, particularly drug addicts.
One escapee indicated he jumped the fence because he was still detoxing from heroin, Nesbitt said.
“He was heroin sick, and he needed his fix,” Nesbitt said.
Before they are eligible to move to the minimal offenders’ building, inmates are evaluated at the main prison, where they undergo a four-day detoxification if they are up-front about their drug use, he said. Prison officials are assessing if the inmate disclosed his drug use and, if so, specifics about the length of his detoxification.
Nesbitt said he believes the other inmate primarily escaped for drug-related reasons because he had been using 40 bags of heroin daily before his incarceration.
An estimated 60 percent of inmates have substance abuse problems, and heroin is “flooding our market,” he said. Many other inmates have mental health issues, and about 20 percent of the inmates are “dealers and pushers,” he said.
“This is not the prison it was even five years ago,” Nesbitt said, citing the necessity to separate some inmates due to their involvement in rival gangs.
Prison officials increasingly are relying on the minimal offenders’ building because of overcrowding at the main prison on Water Street in Wilkes-Barre, which was designed to hold 505 inmates and was at 515 on Tuesday, he said. Nesbitt said the minimal offenders’ building had 223 inmates Tuesday, or 10 below capacity. He has warned council he may be forced to request funding next year to house inmates in other counties at $60 to $120 each per day.
Nesbitt, who was hired in May, said he believes the razor wire was omitted when the minimal offenders’ building on Reichard Street was expanded in 2006 because the property was in a residential zone at that time. Some city representatives had expressed concerns about the impact of barbed wire on an elderly care facility nearby, which may have discouraged the county from seeking a variance, he said. The city changed the property’s zoning to manufacturing in 2012.
In other business Tuesday, county 911 Executive Director Fred Rosencrans said an independent analysis of the emergency call center’s staffing should be completed by the end of September. A recent union review blamed call problems largely on understaffing.
A majority of council’s operational services committee also voted to advance a proposed zoning change allowing backyard chickens in residential areas to the full council for its consideration.