Pa. will transfer 2,000 inmates to Va., Mich.
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HARRISBURG -- The state Department of Corrections, faced with a worsening problem of prison overcrowding and the protracted process of building new prisons, has decided to move 2,000 inmates to lockups in two other states.
The department, which has talked for months about farming out inmates to other states, announced yesterday that prisoners will be shipping out by February. Half of them will go to the Muskegon correction facility in Michigan and the other 1,000 are headed to the Green Rock prison in Chatham, Va.
The Michigan prison is currently vacant but the Virginia facility does have inmates, said Corrections spokeswoman Susan McNaughton. The inmates going out of state will be those who get no or few visits from friends or loved ones, a fact that could blunt criticism from groups representing prisoners' families.
Inmates to be transferred also will be ones without any serious, ongoing medical or mental health problems, she said. Inmates going to Michigan and Virginia also must have at least three years left on their sentences, so they can be returned to Pennsylvania to complete treatment and counseling for alcohol or drug abuse or other problems at one of the prisons to be built in the next couple of years, before they are paroled or sent to pre-release centers such as halfway houses.
Michigan and Virginia will be responsible for moving the prisoners. Ms. McNaughton said she wasn't sure exactly what mode of transportation will be used or when the transfers will be complete.
Michigan and Virginia will charge $62 per day per inmate, or $124,000 per day for all 2,000 inmates. Pennsylvania officials hope to begin bringing the inmates back by 2013, when four new Pennsylvania prisons, each holding 2,000 inmates, are to be completed.
If the 2,000 inmates stay in Michigan and Virginia for three years, it will cost Pennsylvania $135 million. But that's roughly what it would cost to keep the inmates in Pennsylvania prisons for the same period of time, Ms. McNaughton said.
The Corrections budget has been growing in recent years and now is the third-largest amount in the state budget, after education and welfare. For fiscal 2009-10, the state is spending about $1.8 billion on prisons.
In addition to the 2,000 inmates going out of state, there are also 512 state prisoners being housed in jails in several counties in Pennsylvania.
The population of Pennsylvania's 27 state prisons is now 51,400, or about 8,000 over capacity. It also continues to grow, in part because of mandatory sentencing laws.
Because of the crowding problem, Corrections was forced to reopen State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh -- better known as Western Penitentiary -- in 2005. It now has 1,700 inmates. The state also may reopen SCI Waynesburg in Greene County, which closed in 2003, Ms. McNaughton said.
The DOC also plans to build one new prison in Centre County, one in Fayette County and two in Montgomery County. In about six months, ground will be broken for the new Centre County facility, to be located near the current Rockview state prison.
The Fayette County site for the new prison hasn't been chosen yet. In Montgomery County, the two new prisons will be built at the site of the Graterford state prison, which was built in 1929 and is outmoded. It will be "mothballed" when the new facilities are ready, Ms. McNaughton said.
Don McNany, president of the State Corrections Officers Association, said that shipping prisoners out of state is just "a Band-Aid on a larger problem of overcrowding and understaffing. Even with this move, the system is still nearly 6,000 prisoners over capacity" and still needs more guards.
"Our corrections officers walk into hazardous working conditions every day," he said, "and this move does little to ease overcrowding. We need to ensure our institutions are properly staffed."
First Published December 22, 2009 12:00 am