Three options were reviewed for alleviating the overcrowding at the county prison by the Schuylkill County Prison Board at a special meeting held Wednesday afternoon at the courthouse in Pottsville.
The urgency of the action, which must be taken, was reported to the board by its chairman, President Judge William E. Baldwin, because the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has mandated quick action while it reviews a plan submitted by the board to construct a building inside the prison walls, in the recreation yard, which would house about 50 prisoners.
As of Wednesday, there were 345 inmates housed in the prison, which was built for 200. There are about 60 cells, which each have three occupants. Cells were built to house two inmates each, and have only two bunks against the wall in each cell. The third inmate sleeps on a mattress on the floor.
Baldwin listed three options:
Ÿ To board inmates in other prisons throughout the state.
Ÿ To hire a vendor to provide quarters and supervise them.
Ÿ To establish a new sentencing program in the county. Baldwin estimated the costs of sending prisoners to other facilities at about $1.5 million, and about $900,000 to hire a vendor.
The judge and the board leaned toward the third option, which has an estimated cost of about $450,000.
If the new sentencing program is chosen, it first has to be approved by the county judges. Baldwin is meeting with his five associate judges next Wednesday. Also, county commissioners will have to come up with funds for this operation, which would include hiring additional probation offices.
Baldwin estimated the sentencing program is the least expensive about $450,000 per year and he believes he can help the commissioners with some of the cost by allocating $200,000 from a supervision fund he manages. The money for the supervision fund is acquired by the court imposing a $50 monthly cost for each month a defendant is placed on probation or parole. The fund usually helps pay the costs of probation officers, purchasing equipment, and vehicles.
Baldwin said a great deal of thought would go into seeing which inmates could be included in the new sentencing program.
The program would lower minimum sentences, and put more people on probation or parole. He said screening would be done to keep the drug sellers and those committing violent crimes behind bars, but could be lowered for those sentenced for non-violent crimes.
Baldwin was hoping about 80 prisoners could be placed in such a program. He pointed out that prisoners who now receive a sentence of six to 12 months would be eligible for parole or probation after serving three months, instead of six months on the minimum sentence.
"The state has put our backs against the wall," Baldwin said, "and we must take action soon."