Rise in Luzerne County female inmates impacting budget

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - [email protected] | October 30th, 2017 10:59 pm

What’s next

Luzerne County Council has scheduled several more work sessions before its Dec. 12 budget adoption.

An increase in female inmates at the Luzerne County prison has forced some women to sleep in Styrofoam beds known as “boats” and others to be sent to another facility due to overcrowding, county Correctional Services Division Head Mark Rockovich said during his 2018 budget presentation Monday.

Rockovich spent nearly two hours justifying his proposed $28.5 million budget to council — a $467,000 increase from this year’s spending — during the on-the-road session at the Hazle Township municipal building.

Correctional services is the most expensive county division and amounts to 20 percent of the proposed $141.1 million general fund operating budget. The county operates a prison on Water Street and a minimum offenders building on Reichard Street, both in Wilkes-Barre.

The female population came up when he explained his $325,000 request for outside inmate housing. He said he is seeking less than this year’s $347,500 allocation, but he does not want to cut more because he was recently forced to send 20 women to Clinton County at $70 per day.

Another 10 are sleeping on boat beds in the common area of the female unit on the prison’s fourth floor, he said. The temporary beds are stacked to free up space when they are not in use.

Women can’t be moved to another prison floor or to the minimum offenders building because they must be segregated, Rockovich said. Their floor holds up to 97, Rockovich said. Prison officials have said the number of female inmates is rising nationally, largely due to the opioid epidemic.

A portion of the correctional budget increase — $100,000 — is for overtime at the prison, which is proposed at $1.1 million next year.

Rockovich estimated overtime will total $1.05 million by the end of the year. He did not recommend hiring additional staff to reduce overtime, saying that approach may not yield net savings. Instead, prison officials have been focusing on changing the “culture” of sick-day abuse, with many workers increasingly mindful of the impact unnecessary days off have on colleagues who are forced to work more, he said.

The county employs approximately 324, including correctional officers and administrative staff.

Rockovich is seeking one new position — a prison kitchen supervisor at $35,262. He said a lieutenant trained to handle security was also assigned to handle additional kitchen food ordering and oversight during layoffs in 2010. This employee’s security expertise is needed full-time, he said.

The proposed budget seeks $695,000 to feed inmates, which amounts to an average $1.20 per meal, Rockovich said. This year’s allocation is $679,781. The additional supervisor may decrease food costs, but he stressed it’s not a guarantee.

Another $30,000 was sought to purchase bulletproof vests and other safety devices for correctional officers, Rockovich said. The 15 vests are seven years old and must be replaced because they protect officers when they transport inmates, he said.

Pointing to spending reductions in some areas, Rockovich said he also taps all available revenue, which is budgeted at $954,500 in 2018.

For example, room and board from inmates on work release is expected to generate $150,000 next year, a $30,000 increase.

Inmates are charged a $5 copay if they routinely seek doctor visits, and the physician finds no medical problems. It adds up, with the prison continuing to budget $10,000 again in 2018.

During a public budget hearing preceding the work session, five citizens urged council to reject the administration’s proposed 2 percent tax hike, which would increase the county tax bill on a $100,000 property $11.95, from a total of $597.54 to $609.49.

Mark Rabo said council should explore untapped revenue streams and cut requested new positions if there is not a “dire need.”

“Please don’t let it go on the backs of the homeowners of this county,” he said.

Brian Shiner said the number of county employees dropped following home rule’s 2012 implementation but has increased again. An increase of $1 per month on top of other rising expenses is too much for many property owners, he said.

Walter Griffith, who is running for county controller, advised council members to eliminate 3 percent earmarked for non-union raises in many departments and to close any remaining gap with some of the proceeds from a baseball franchise litigation settlement with Lackawanna County or other windfalls.

“It’s the taxpayers’ money,” he said.

Ed Chesnovitch criticized proposed new positions, including a $96,000 chief operating officer.

“CFO? Give me a break,” he said.


By Jennifer Learn-Andes

[email protected]

What’s next

Luzerne County Council has scheduled several more work sessions before its Dec. 12 budget adoption.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.