A visibly-disappointed President Judge William E. Baldwin announced at the Schuylkill County Prison Board meeting Thursday at the courthouse in Pottsville that the plans for construction of a prerelease center adjoining the state correctional center in Ryan Township, just east of Frackville, cannot be carried out because of the high cost.
A week ago the county commissioners opened bids for its construction, but after a study of the bids, Baldwin said they came in higher than the limit placed by the county commissioners.
The bids placed the cost at $4.2 million, while the commissioners had set a budget limit at $3.2 million.
At the time the commissioners said any additional cost would have forced them to increase property taxes, which they promised they would not do.
"What is the alternative?" Baldwin asked the board, "I am open to suggestions." He received no response.
After years of work preparing for the center, it was a major disappointment to most board members.
They had acquired the land from the state without any complaints from property owners and were approved for a loan from the state. Baldwin was turning over more than a million dollars from a fund he manages of monies paid by defendants placed on probation. All that was needed were bids to meet the costs set by the board, but that didn't materialize.
Baldwin painted a bleak future, pointing out that the prison population continues to mount and the current county prison in Pottsville has been overcrowded for years. Its capacity was to be 200, but as many as 300 prisoners have been housed, doubling and tripling in cells.
Baldwin explained the county has managed to avoid being cited by the federal government for overcrowding, since it was in the process of relieving the overcrowding, but that avenue is now dead. Baldwin fears a suit will be brought by the federal government ordering the county to reduce the population in the current facility.
"What do we do with the prisoners?" he asked.
He said only so many can be placed under house arrest with electronic monitoring which has to be supervised by probation officers.
"You can't let a drug dealer to be left in his home, where he can continue to sell drugs, or a person who committed a violent crime," he said.
Baldwin also noted there has been a steady increase in probation violations and blamed it on the poor economy, where those on probation could not obtain jobs and returned to their old habits.
"We have to deal with the criminal element to protect society," he added, "but the taxpayers are against increases in their taxes and the costs of materials are steadily going up."
Commissioner Francis McAndrew said the prerelease center should have been built 10 years ago when the costs were within the range.
"This is a sad day," he added.
Minority Commissioner Frank Staudenmeier, who had all along questioned the feasibility of building the prerelease center, said he felt all along that the cost would be t0o high. He claims the board needs to continue to explore alternatives and added that this is not only a county problem, but overcrowding prisons is a state problem, and the state has transferred inmates to prisons in other states.
In other business the board took action recommending the commissioners hire three correctional officers, Kim I. Rodgers, Bethlehem; Kevin M. Swatt, Valley View; and David L. Whitman Jr., Hegins.
The board also directed fiscal administrator Mark Scarbinsky to begin renegotiating a contract with PrimeCare, Harrisburg, which provides medical service to the inmates.