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Warden gets go ahead to ask county for new prison

August 06, 2004|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, PA. - With Franklin County Prison operating at nearly twice its design capacity and interest rates for municipal borrowing at historic lows, the county is positioning itself to build a new jail.

The Prison Board on Thursday authorized Warden John Wetzel to request funding for a new jail from the Board of County Commissioners. All three county commissioners also sit on the Prison Board.

"We need to be timely in our actions ... we're still at 30- to 40-year lows" for interest rates, said G. Warren Elliott, chairman of the board of commissioners.

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"The county staff has already been looking at some financing options," said Commissioner Cheryl Plummer.

"The time to move is now," Commissioner Bob Thomas said.

The cost of a new jail with more than 400 beds would be approximately $30 million, Wetzel said. A conceptual design done two years ago calls for a building that would be expandable in the future.

The existing prison complex consists of two buildings - the main prison, which opened in 1973 and has a design capacity of 94 inmates, and the work release annex, which opened in 1992 and has room for 101 prisoners, Wetzel said.

The population was 381 on Wednesday and the average daily population for the year has been 341, Wetzel said. The main building had 168 inmates and the annex another 176, according to Wetzel's figures.

That leaves more than 30 county inmates who are either in rented bed space at other county prisons, or in a state mental hospital.

"We're at a point where, renting beds out at $60 a day, it's cheaper to build," Wetzel said.

Franklin County paid Adams County $117,000 in the first half of the year to house inmates there, according to prison figures.

"The biggest problem we have is classification," Wetzel said. Violent, nonviolent and mentally ill prisoners should remain separated, but there is not enough cell space to properly isolate the most dangerous prisoners from the general population, he said.

After 30 years, Wetzel said the main building's plumbing and heating systems are aging. The 12-year-old annex has it own problems, including locks that are no longer available and have to be shipped to Washington state when they need to be rebuilt.

"Imagine overnighting a 5-pound lock to Washington. What do you do in the meantime? We man the door with an officer," Wetzel said.

Personnel constitutes 70 percent of the cost of a prison over its lifetime and Wetzel said the staff of 90 could be used more efficiently in a newer, better designed building.

The prison board has taken several steps in preparation for a new prison, including signing a project management agreement last month with Carter Goble Lee Companies, a firm that includes planning corrections facilities as one of its specialties.

The county's 14.5-mill real estate tax includes .85 mills for debt service on an existing $13 million bond issue, Plummer said. The board did not have figures on how much debt service might increase to finance construction of a prison.

Once financing is resolved, the next step would be to hire an architect, Wetzel said. Designing the building and bidding the contracts would take about a year and construction would take up to two more years, he said.

The county also has been using alternatives to incarceration, such as electronic monitoring and house arrest, and intensive supervision for those on probation to divert people from the prison. Chief Probation Officer Richard Mertz said those programs have saved about 12,000 inmate days in the first half of this year.

Still, the number of inmates multiplied by the length of their sentences is 72,560 inmate days, about 5,000 ahead of last year's pace, according to prison records.

The county also has applied for a state grant for a day reporting center, where offenders could report for training, counseling and treatment rather than jail.

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