State inmates' return to Pa. boosts county economies

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In early 2010, in an effort to ease the burden of the state's prison system, Gov. Ed Rendell announced that Pennsylvania would contract with Michigan and Virginia to move 2,000 low-risk inmates to facilities in those states.

Over the ensuing months, Pennsylvania sent millions of dollars out of state, at the same time taking criticism from advocacy groups that such a move interfered with family visitation, which in turn, interferes with successful reintegration into the community.

"Ninety percent of our inmates will return home someday, and helping them maintain family support is vital to their successful return into society," said Janet Kelly, a spokeswoman with Gov. Tom Corbett's office.

That's why, she said, in combination with the idea that when possible Pennsylvania's money should stay local, Mr. Corbett early in his administration declared that those inmates should be returned and housed, instead, in county facilities.

The prisoners in Michigan have been back since May, and by March, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections expects that the 874 inmates in Virginia will be returned as well.

As of December, Pennsylvania had 51,600 state inmates and a capacity of just 48,300. Of those, 606 inmates are currently being held at 14 county facilities across Pennsylvania, including 82 in Cambria, 56 in Indiana, 30 in Beaver and 16 in Armstrong.

Pennsylvania was paying Virginia $62 per day per inmate. That rate is less expensive than any of the state DOC facilities in Pennsylvania, which range from $70.94 per day to $139.45. But it is more than the contracted rates with the county facilities, which charge between $47 and $60 per day.

For Indiana County, taking on the additional state inmates has been a financial boon.

Since it started accepting the lower-level prisoners, the county has earned an extra $1 million per year, said Indiana County Jail Warden Carol Hummel.

"It offsets my budget and goes in to the general fund," she said. "That's the advantage to the county."

When Indiana's new facility opened in February 2009, it was designed to hold 256 inmates -- many more than was necessary.

"So, we had empty beds," Ms. Hummel said.

Even with the 56 inmates from the state, the population there is still only at 200.

The benefit to the state, the warden continued, is that it has its prisoners housed somewhere safe and at a lower cost. The inmates can even get some of the programming they need to be able to make parole.

"It's been a win win win," Ms. Hummel said.

But there have been negative consequences from Pennsylvania's decision to bring its prisoners back from out of state -- at least in Virginia.

The end of the contract there has resulted in a loss of $20 million in revenue per year. Virginia's governor announced in December that it is being forced to close one of its older prisons, the Mecklenburg Correctional Center, which will result in the loss of about 300 jobs and potential financial ruin for the small town of Boydton.

Even so, Ms. Hummel commended the move to Pennsylvania's counties.

"With all the budget cuts and funding cuts, it's helped the county," she said. "And it keeps inmates closer to their families."


Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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