Mike Kryworuka opens the door of his mother's home in Barnesville to greet a visitor, but stops short of stepping out onto the porch. If he goes past his front door, the ankle monitor he wears will alert the Schuylkill County Adult Probation office, and an officer will immediately be in touch to find out why he left the house and where he was.

The close monitoring Kryworuka also must take breath tests in front of a camera four times a day is one of the requirements he must comply with under the rules of the county's first pre-release program, begun in September.

The program was established to reduce overcrowding in the county prison. So far, the numbers indicate that it's working.

In September, 314 inmates were housed in Schuylkill County Prison. By the end of February, there were 275.

The 163-year-old prison, built of dark red stone and across the street from the county courthouse in Pottsville, has 227 beds. The optimal number of inmates is 80 percent of that, or 181, said Warden Eugene Berdanier.

As of March 12, a total of 31 inmates were triple-celled; before the pre-release program, it was up to about 60, he said.

"The immediate benefit is that it has somewhat alleviated the overcrowding, even though our population is still a little high," Berdanier said. "(The population) was much higher before we had the program."

Adult Probation Supervisor C.J. Begansky said at a March 12 Prison Board meeting that he would like to see the inmate numbers drop to around 240 or even 230.

"With the way we're going, I don't see that as a goal we can't attain," he said.

Beginnings

Most county jails are overcrowded. Pennsylvania's county prison inmate population soared by 94 percent between 1990 and 2011, from 17,915 to 34,823, according to the state Department of Corrections.

Inmates sentenced to two years or less serve their time in the county jail; more than two years means state time.

According to the DOC, the average daily population in Schuylkill County prison in 2003 was 220. By 2008, it was 302, and by 2011, was back down to 253, but has climbed since then. The DOC has pressured the county for years to reduce overcrowding, said Schuylkill President Judge William Baldwin, who until January served as chairman of the county prison board.

The county has spent years trying to find a solution. Officials planned to buy land to build a pre-release center for nonviolent inmates, but a brick-and-mortar program proved too costly. Building a separate pre-release unit inside an unused exercise yard within the prison or shipping inmates to other jails also proved unworkable.

The DOC held back while the county weighed the options, but insisted on immediate action once the options were dropped.

"We were pretty much under the gun," Baldwin said. "So we decided to hire more probation officers and probation officer aides and take nonviolent offenders and put them out on the street with strict supervision sooner than they would have been otherwise."

Schuylkill's pre-release program, which Baldwin describes as a hybrid of probation and incarceration, was born.

Costs

The county projected costs for three years to see if the program would be sustainable.

Funding for the first year is estimated to cost $510,000. Of that, $200,000 is from the court supervision fund with fees paid by defendants, and the remaining $310,000 will come from the county's general fund, said county finance director Paul Buber.

In the second year, the cost is expected to be $525,000. Of that, $50,000 will come from the supervision fund and $475,000 from the general fund. After that, the general fund will foot the bill.

President Judge Baldwin, who oversees the supervision fee account, on March 11 contributed another $200,000 for the program from the supervision fund.

The expenses are generated by the need for intense supervision. The county hired two additional probation officers and two aides in addition to electronic monitoring and alcohol breath test equipment.

"There's no cheap fix here," Baldwin said.

So, is the program sustainable?

Yes, says county Prison Board Chairman George F. Halcovage.

"This is probably the least costly of all the options we had," he said.

I would believe that (Judge Baldwin), seeing it working, will try to assist in trying to make this work even better," Halcovage said. "The success of this program is going to allow him to make a good, informed decision on whether it is or is not working, and if those (supervision fee) funds are available" to be contributed to it.

How it works

Kryworuka, 38, racked up a string of shoplifting convictions ranging back to 2001. He filched stuff from stores, he says, to support a drug habit. The last offense was about a year ago.

Under the program, Kryworuka lives with his mother and attends counseling sessions and support groups four days a week. Four times a day, a loud, sharp chirp summons him to a black breath test machine that sits on a side table in the living room. He must face the camera screen on the machine as he blows into a straw that tests his breath for the presence of alcohol. A probation officer may drop by any time, unannounced, for a face-to-face visit.

Kryworuka also wears an ankle monitor that tracks his whereabouts and immediately alerts his probation officer if he steps away from his front door.

He believes the intense supervision, with its counseling and support, is allowing him to break free of his addictions and plan a more productive and law-abiding life.

"I'm really grateful for the program," he said. "When you're in the jail, you're in a cell with two other inmates, and you're just stuck in there like chuck, with nothing to do. It doesn't really do anything for you."

In addition to the busy schedule of counseling and support meetings, Kryworuka also has the constant presence of his mother, herself 10 years clean from a drug habit, to help keep him on track.

Kryworuka recently graduated from the house arrest facet of the program, and has begun speaking to recovery groups.

He was a good candidate for the pre-release program. He is nonviolent, not a sex offender and did not deal drugs.

"It is basically house arrest with intensive supervision so as not to compromise public safety," county Chief Probation Officer John M. Richmond said.

Public safety is a concern for Richmond.

"You're talking about releasing people who would be in jail if it were not overcrowded. You lose sleep over the fact you're letting people out of jail," he said.

"It's a tough balancing act, balancing public safety with trying to identify people who maybe don't belong behind bars, and keep them from becoming reoffenders," Richmond said.

Those who have violated parole are considered good candidates because authorities already know them and know whether the program would likely work for them. Eventually, Richmond said, he'd like to see the pre-release program incorporated into routine sentencings.

"That would be a way to sustain the program," he said.

The screening seems to work. Of the 55 people admitted into the program so far, only two have been returned to jail for violating its terms.

"There are some people who just do not fit the criteria to be on work release or pre-release. They are just career criminals. They belong in prison," Sheriff Joseph G. Groody said at a recent prison board meeting.

District Attorney Christine Holman likes what she sees so far.

"The pre-release program I think is certainly beneficial to the county and to the families of the individuals who have committed crimes and are permitted to enter the program," she said. "Unless there are any major glitches or problems, to me it seems like a win-win."