The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

January 15, 2013

Small county prisons struggle

HARRISBURG — Six months before the state announced it was closing two state prisons in western Pennsylvania, replacing them with a brand-new facility in Centre County, tiny Juniata County abandoned its county prison entirely.

In doing so, Juniata County, population 24,000, became one of five counties in Pennsylvania that do not operate a lockup.

Juniata County Commissioner Teresa O’Neal, who served a stint as acting warden while the county mulled whether to continue operating a jail, said the decision was by no means easy or popular.

In Juniata County, officials determined that it would be less expensive to ship county prisoners to neighboring Mifflin County than it would be to continue operating a prison that cost $1.4 million to operate in 2011 while housing an average of just more than 28 prisoners each day. Juniata County has budgeted $1 million for costs associated with boarding those inmates elsewhere in 2013.

Twenty-one people lost their jobs at the Mifflintown jail when the county shut. But the decision was driven by not just the short-term costs, but also the long-term challenges of operating a safe and secure prison in a facility that had been built in 1833.

The jail had just one segregated cell. As acting warden, O’Neal showed up for work just before 7 a.m. and encountered guards who had been run ragged trying to keep the peace in the jail. One inmate was high on methamphetamine, another was having mental health issues and two others had just decided to brawl.

“I had to immediately order the transfer of three people,” O’Neal said. “We couldn’t control it.”

Dr. Gregory Zajac, a professor of criminal justice at Penn State University and the former head of research at the state Department of Corrections, said that Juniata joined Cameron, Forest, Fulton and Sullivan counties, all of which had given up on the burden of operating a county prison long ago.

County prisons struggle because it is difficult to manage fluctuating populations when you are dealing with small economies of scale. Plus, there is much more uncertainty that comes with operating a county prison, compared with the state Corrections system.

“One of the issues with county jails is that it’s hard to predict what the population will be,” Zajac said.

And while there may be times that county jails may be faced with a crush of inmates, many of them operate below capacity.

A study completed by Zajac and fellow researcher Lindsay Kowalski found that from 2004 to 2010, the population in rural county jails in Pennsylvania increased 17 percent, but that on average, rural jails were only at 84 percent capacity.

At the same time, the state Department of Corrections was at 113 percent capacity. County prisons mainly hold two types of prisoners: Those serving sentences of less than two years and those awaiting trial. Most people awaiting trial have the right to some level of bail, so prison officials have no way of knowing if or when they will post bail and be released.

A move to replace two aging state prisons in Pennsylvania by one new facility was helped by the surprising news that the Department of Corrections saw the number of people jailed in the state system decline last year, reversing a trend in which the prison population had swelled.

The state is in a better position to plan for longer-term changes in the prison population because the length of inmate sentences provides planners with a general sense of how trends will play out.

County officials who are dealing with local lockups do not have the same sort of security.

The Department of Corrections’ final population numbers ended up being about 400-500 below the prior year. The decrease is not particularly associated with a reduction in crime.

Union officials protesting the state’s move to close SCI-Cresson and SCI-Greensburg argue that the decline in prison population could be an aberration, since 2012’s drop was only the third decrease in the past four decades.

Rather, lawmakers and corrections experts attribute the decline to reforms intended to diminish the number of inmates who are stuck in jail past their minimum sentence dates unnecessarily and better recognize which offenders need to be in state prison and which could serve their time in county lockups.

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