Prison capacity a concern

The average daily population at the Franklin County Prison is hovering around 353 inmates, which is more than 100 inmates above

The average daily population at the Franklin County Prison is hovering around 353 inmates, which is more than 100 inmates above

August 05, 2002|by STACEY DANZUSO

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - With temperatures in the upper 90s and the jail about 150 inmates over capacity, Warden John Wetzel likened conditions in Franklin County Prison last month to a "pressure cooker."

"It was hot and overcrowded. I felt like the place was a pressure cooker," Wetzel said of the days last month when the prison population reached a record high.

"We had one bed open for males on July 11 when we hit 388" inmates, he said. That required tripling nearly every cell in the main building.


Wetzel said the 30-year-old main prison and the annex, which houses work-release inmates and women, are only designed to accommodate 244 inmates.

Wetzel said tempers were flaring, guards were putting in mandated overtime and he was seeing a rise in sick time among employees and misconduct among inmates.

To alleviate some of the pressure, Wetzel sent 15 to 20 male inmates to prisons in Cambria and Cumberland counties for several days. But at $45 a day per bed, he said that's a temporary fix he uses only sparingly.

"It was the midst of a heat wave. Misconducts were up and we needed to relieve stress," Wetzel said.

A population that high is a drain on the entire system, from record keeping to mail sorting and meal preparation.

"There is not one person working here who is not affected," Wetzel said.

As of Wednesday, the inmate population was down to 343, but Wetzel believes it is only a brief reprieve.

"I'm not optimistic it will stay this low," he said.

Population rises

According to prison statistics provided by Wetzel, the prison population has climbed sharply in the last decade.

In 1992, the average daily population for the prison was 209. Two years later it broke 250, and it crossed 300 in 2000. Last year, the average inmate count was 318, but so far for 2002, Wetzel said it is hovering around 353.

He said statistics show incarceration rates are up and inmates are staying in the jail for longer periods.

Franklin County Court of Common Pleas Judge Douglas Herman attributes the higher prison population to increased enforcement of drug- and alcohol-related crimes, the reasons the majority of inmates are serving time.

Herman said mandatory minimum sentences for driving under the influence established by the state several years ago are no longer serving as a deterrent.

"It's now common to see people with second and third offenses, even with the mandatory sentences," he said.

Franklin County Commissioner Bob Thomas, who is president of the county's Prison Board, said he also attributes the increased incarceration rates to stricter enforcement of laws and a growing drug problem that the Franklin County Drug Task Force is battling.

"They've been successful, and that results in more people behind bars," he said.

Tight quarters at the prison on Franklin Farm Lane, just east of Chambersburg, could also inadvertently be part of the reason two-thirds of the inmates are repeat offenders.

Wetzel, who took over as warden in February, said he is a proponent of rehabilitation and treatment for inmates, but he said there is no room in the current facility to offer many programs.

Without many treatment options for the 90 percent of inmates who are incarcerated on drug- or alcohol-related offenses, Wetzel said it's likely they will go out and get caught using alcohol or drugs again and wind up back in prison.

Alternative sentencing

Herman, who sits on the county Prison Board, a group of administrators from all areas of the county government and court system, is well aware of the crowding situation. But he said that is not interfering with how the county's four judges use alternatives like electronic monitoring.

"(Electronic monitoring) has an indirect benefit of relieving the population, but we can't use it for that reason alone," he said.

Wetzel cautioned that electronic monitoring can also backfire when used to reduce overcrowding in the jail.

"When you increase the amount of supervision, you catch more people screwing up," Wetzel said. Those found violating conditions of electronic monitoring or intense supervision are sent to jail.

Last year, consultants completed the first phase of a study on the prison and recommended several short-term solutions, including increasing the reliance on electronic monitoring and ending the practice of renting bed space to Fulton County, which does not have its own prison.

Wetzel said for the most part, Franklin County is not renting many beds to Fulton County anymore. He said he has also stopped housing state parole violators, which the county did for years as a courtesy.

Long-term solutions?

The consultants are winding down the second phase of the study, which looks at long-term solutions, Wetzel said.

He said an advisory committee and consultants are not ruling out any ideas, which range from renovating the existing facility to building a new prison.

Wetzel said he did not want to get behind a particular recommendation until the second phase is completed.

"My own view is I don't see how we can avoid new construction," Herman said.

The consultants expect the prison population will continue to rise and reach 423 in 2005, 491 in 2010, 570 in 2015 and 668 by 2020, Wetzel said.

If the consultants are on target, in just three years the county could be spending as much as $2,385 a day - $870,000 a year - to ship inmates to neighboring counties at $45 a day, Wetzel said.

He said he hopes a decision is made by the end of the year, but recognizes it can't be taken lightly.

"Jails are black holes. You put a lot of money in them and get nothing out," Wetzel said.

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