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Complex left much to be desired

April 29, 2007|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, PA.-When he was interviewed for the Franklin County warden's job five years ago, John Wetzel was told by county officials that the jail was overcrowded, there were major security issues, and relations with the union representing corrections officers were strained.

"You paint a pleasant picture," he remembered saying.

Wetzel, who had risen through the ranks to become director of training at Berks County Prison, said he was surprised when offered the job. Then 32, he was one of the youngest wardens ever in Pennsylvania.

While he found the staff professional and discovered that "they embraced change," the prison complex left much to be desired, with aging works and an out-of-date design.

"It looks like a fixer-upper," Wetzel said then of the main prison, which opened in 1973. The complex also has a work release annex, which opened in 1993.

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Designed to hold about 200 inmates, the prison population was more than 370 one day last week.

That overcrowded prison complex will be emptied by July, when more than 300 inmates and 120 staff members will move into the $30 million Franklin County Jail. The date of the move will not be announced until it is completed in order to reduce the risk of a security breach, Wetzel said.

The change of name from prison to jail better reflects the building's use, Wetzel said. Most of the people housed there are serving local sentences of fewer than two years, are awaiting trial or sentencing, or have violated probation or parole on their county sentences, he said.

What will happen at the old prison complex has yet to be determined, Wetzel said, although a few organizations have toured the building.

"There's more interest in the building than I would have expected," Wetzel said. At least one group was looking at the prison as a possible youth detention facility, he said.

The work-release annex is another matter, Wetzel said. He recently told a group of county and municipal officials that it ought to be torn down.

"What's not wrong with it?" Wetzel said last week. "It's a modular, and the life expectancy of a unit like that is five years and we've been using it for 15."

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