Does Norco need a new jail?
In 2000, then County Executive Glenn Reibman advised council that a new jail was needed to replace one built in 1871. He proposed a multi-phase plan, and got one $29 million addition.
In 2008, then Executive John Stoffa informed council that a new jail was needed, and proposed moving county offices to Gracedale while building a new jail at a cost ranging between $130 and $160 million. Stoffa got a work release center in West Easton for a maximum of 100 residents.
Now, it’s Executive John Brown’s turn. At a Sept. 14 meeting, Corrections Director Dan Keen pitched a new jail.
Sometimes jokingly called Chez Northampton County, the jail is currently home to 732 inmates. “It’s a beast!” is Keen’s flat assessment. He described a maintenance nightmare that offers only two treatment programs for an unstable inmate population. He complimented professional corrections officers who “come in, day in, day out,” despite being subjected to 304 assaults or acts of aggression over the past three years.
Keen made the case for a new jail, ideally on a 60-acre tract, that would be safer for inmates and staff. It would be built without the intimidating, fortress-like style of the current facility.
Where it will be located and how will it be funded are concerns that Keen left to council and Brown.
Jail exceeds capacity
Stoffa’s prison study, done at a time when there were triple beds and inmates were sleeping in hallways, projected that 1,308 beds would be needed by 2015. “We treat animals better than we treat our prisoners,” he complained.
After that study, courts became more willing to sentence offenders to state prison and the census began to drop. There were only 732 inmates at the time of Keen’s presentation, a far cry from the 1,308 projection in 2008. But this still exceeds the functional capacity at the jail, which is 605. Keen explained that once the jail has more than 605 inmates, there are challenges. It becomes more difficult to keep rival gang members apart. It is harder to segregate juvenile offenders from the adult population, which is required by the Prison Rape Elimination Act.
“We’re out of room,” said Keen. When female inmates are scheduled for court, they must walk through the male housing unit to get to what is called the bull pen. So on a weekly basis, male inmates expose themselves, resulting in complaints that must be investigated.
The current female population is 117, and there’s no room for more. Yet Keen is projecting an average increase of 2.7 percent per year.
This has resulted in added cost. It was at $4.2 million in 2013. Females tend to be sentenced to longer periods than males
Mentally Ill Inmates
Since 1955, Pennsylvania has closed 10 state hospitals, including Allentown State Hospital, reducing the number of patients from 41,000 to just 1,500. It’s a 96 percent drop inspired by the belief that mentally ill people do better in the community. Instead, they’re ending up in county jails. Keen told council that 42 percent of NorCo inmates are on some form of psychotropic medication. He is trying to have eight inmates transferred to a state hospital. For two of them, he has been waiting for nearly a year.
These inmates are housed on the old side of the jail, built in 1871. There is no air conditioning, and even in the winter months, average temperatures inside are 85-90 degrees.
“We’re doing more harm than good,” said Keen.
The number of mentally ill inmates has increased 48 percent since 2010. For mentally ill women, commitments have increased 65 percent in that period. Over half of those committed each year (52 percent) are mentally ill.
Corrections officers now undergo crisis intervention and mental health first aid training.
Just last week, Keen discovered a 70-foot long pipe at the jail with a dozen leaks. This unforeseen repair will cost $21,000. At a jail that was first built in 1871, these things happen frequently. Over the past three years, the county has spent $1.9 million on emergency facility repairs.
Just last month, Keen was forced to ask council to approve an additional maintenance employee to deal with several hundred maintenance issues, small and large. He has also just learned that the walls surrounding the jail are corroding from the inside and must be replaced within the next three years.
In addition to the inherent danger to corrections officers posed by inmates, they often fall and injure themselves while responding to emergencies. Uneven slate floors, improperly aligned steps and condensation build-ups on floors have resulted in $1.84 million in worker’s compensation claims over the past three years.
On the older side of the facility, the cells have open bars. This makes it possible for an inmate to grab and injure a corrections officer or hit him with a “feces grenade” (a shampoo bottle containing a mixture of feces and urine). These older cells also lack wickets through which food trays can be passed, meaning the officer has to open the cell door to feed someone.
While Adams County has had one assault in the last 18 months, Northampton County experiences 100 a year.
“My hat’s off to the officers,” said Keen, saying they work under stressful conditions.
The current layout of the jail is what Keen calls a linear or “old school” design, making it impossible for corrections officers to see all inmates under their supervision. In one area, cell blocks are arranged in a linear design on an upper level, with a gate that is only at thigh level.
Keen, who is built like an NFL lineman and did play college football, said it is impossible for someone his size to walk through the area without his shoulders rubbing up against the open cells. If he attempt to move away from the cell, there is a risk that he could go over the railing and fall onto the floor below.
State law and liability
Keen indicated that the jail is scheduled for inspection by state corrections officials. If it falls below the minimum standards set by the state, the county will eventually be forced, at its own expense, to house inmates in other counties.
This combination of increased census, mental health issues, growing female population, maintenance issues, poor design and officer safety issues makes the county ripe for a civil rights lawsuit. Keen warned that eventually, someone is going to be hurt seriously or fatally. “Then we’ll say, ‘Why didn’t we do something earlier?’”
Keen said a new facility might surprise some people. Instead of having a fortress-like look, most new jails look like a school or office building. Urban yards would be built inside the walls on a tract between 40 and 60 acres.
Keen said there are three options.
First, move everything to a new location. Second, keep female inmates in Easton and the work release facility in West Easton and build a new facility for males. Third, keep the female inmates in Easton and bring the work release inmates back to Easton, but build a new facility for the males.
Keen said several sites have been studied, though he did not say where. It seems unlikely it would remain in Easton. It would cost $20 million just to tear down the current facility, and at least half the inmates would have to be sent to several locations for two years.
Keen said no one would be able to walk around in the new facility and would be released from Easton. Bob Werner suggested that it might be possible to market a new jail to another community on the basis of jobs produced. But John Cusick said a jail in another community like the Gracedale campus will be controversial, and recommended the county retain good zoning counsel for what will obviously be a fight. “It’s gonna take time, effort and political will to move this ahead,” he said. He added that this is not a Democratic or Republican issue, but is something that needs to be done to accomplish a “core function of county government.”
The problem, as Ron Angle stated when he was on council, is “who the hell wants a new prison?” Especially when the price tag is over $100 million.
Hayden Phillips said where the new jail goes is an administrative decision, but “this is something that needs to be fixed.”
Acting Director of Administration Cathy Allen said the county is very serious about a new site, and will be back to council in 30 to 60 days once funding sources are identified. She hinted, “some of the people we need to be in our corner will be in our corner.” Werner added, “There are people we have met with in the past that have changed. Positions have changed.”
Ken Kraft wants to break ground now. “We have a 200-year-old prison and we have a morgue in a barn,” he said. “That’s Northampton County in a nutshell.”