Thursday, September 15, 2016

NorCo Corrections Director on Jail: "It's a Beast!"

Corrections Director Dan Keen
Is it time for a new jail? That was the focus of a Council hearing yesterday. Corrections Director Dan Keen pointed to serious shortcomings at what is sometimes jokingly called Chez Northampton County, which is currently home to 732 inmates. "It's a beast!" was his flat assessment. He described a maintenance nightmare that offers only two treatment programs for an unstable inmate population. He complimented professional corrections officers who "come in, day in, day out," despite being subjected to 304 assaults or acts of aggression over the past three years. He made the case for a new jail, ideally on a 60-acre tract, that would be safer for inmates and staff, but without the intimidating, fortress-like style that currently exists. Where it will be located and how will it be funded are concerns that Keen left to Council and Executive John Brown.

Jail population exceeds its functional capacity

A prison study done in 2008 projected that 1,308 beds would be needed by 2015. At that time, there were triple beds and inmates were sleeping in hallways. Then Executive John Stoffa complained, "We treat animals better than we treat our prisoners."

After that study, courts became more willing to sentence offenders to state prison. So there were only 732 inmates at the time of Keen's presentation, but that still exceeds the functional capacity at the jail, which is 605. This presents challenges, according to Keen. He stated that once the jail has more than 605 inmates, it becomes more difficult to keep rival gang members apart. It is harder to segregate juvenile offenders from the adult population, which is required by the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

Female Population

"We're out of room," said Keen. When female inmates are scheduled for court, they must walk through the male housing unit to get to what is called the bull pen. So on a weekly basis, male inmates expose themselves, resulting in complaints that must be investigated.

The current female population is 117, and there's no room for more. Yet Keen is projecting an average increase of 2.7% per year.

This has resulted in added cost. It was at $4.2 million in 2013. Females tend to be sentenced to longer periods than males

Mentally Ill Inmates

Since 1955, Pennsylvania has closed ten state hospitals, including Allentown State Hospital, reducing the number of patients from 41,000 to just 1,500, it’s a 96% drop inspired by the belief that mentally ill people do better in the community. They're ending up in county jails. Keen told Council that 42% of NorCo inmates are on some form of psychotropic medication. He is trying to have eight inmates transferred to a state hospital. For two of them, he has been waiting for nearly a year.

These inmates are housed on the old side of the jail, built in 1871. There is no air conditioning, and even in the winter months, average temperatures inside are 85-90 degrees.

"We're doing more harm than good," said Keen.

The number of mentally ill inmates has increased 48% since 2010. For mentally ill women, commitments have increased 65% in that period. Over half of the commitments each year (52%) are mentally ill.

Corrections officers now undergo crisis intervention and mental health first aid training.

Maintenance costs

Just last week, Keen discovered a 70' long pipe at the jail with a dozen leaks. This unforeseen repair will cost $21,000. At a jail that was first built in 1871, these things happen frequently. Over the past three years, the County has spent $1.9 million on facility repairs. Just last month, Keen was forced to ask Council to approve an additional maintenance employee to deal with several hundred maintenance issues, small and large. He has also just learned that the walls surrounding the jail are corroding from the inside and must be replaced within the next three years.

Officer safety

Uneven slate floors, improperly aligned steps and condensation build ups on floors have resulted in officers falling and injuring themselves while responding to emergencies.

On the older side of the facility, the cells are open bars. This makes it possible for an inmate to grab and injure a corrections officer or hit him with a "feces grenade" (a shampoo bottle containing a mixture of feces and urine). These older cells lack wickets through which food trays can be passed, meaning that the officer has to open the cell door to feed someone.

While Adams County has had one assault in the last 18 months, Northampton County experiences 100 a year.

Result? $1.8 million in workman's compensation claims over the past three years. Because the County is self-insured, taxpayers foot the bill.

"My hat's off to the officers," said Keen, saying they work under stressful conditions.

Poor Design

The current layout of the jail is what Keen calls a linear or "old school" design, making it impossible for corrections officers to see all inmates under their supervision. In one area, cell blocks are arranged in a linear design on an upper level, with a gate that is only at thigh level.

Keen, who is built like an NFL lineman and did play college football, said it is impossible for someone his size to walk through the area without his shoulders rubbing up against the open cells. If he attempt to move away from the cell, there is a risk that he could go over the railing and fall onto the floor below.

State law and liability

Keen indicated that the jail is scheduled for inspection by state corrections. If it falls below the minimum standards set by the state, the County will eventually be forced, at its own expense, to house inmates in other counties.

This combination of increased census, mental health inmates, growing female population, maintenance issues, poor design and officer safety issues makes the county ripe for a civil rights lawsuit. Keen warned that eventually, someone is going to be hurt seriously or fatally. "Then we'll say, 'Why didn't we do something earlier.'"

New Facility

Keen stated that a new facility might surprise some people. Instead of having a fortress-like look, most new jails look like a school or office building. Urban yards would be built inside the walls on a tract between 40 and 60 acres.

Keen said there are three options. First, move everything to a new location. Second, keep female inmates in Easton and the work release facility in West Easton and build a new facility for males. Third, keep the female inmates in Easton and bring the work release inmates back to Easton, but build a new facility for the males.

Keen said that several sites have been studied, though he did not say where. It seems unlikely it would remain in Easton. It would cost $20 million just to tear down the current facility, and at least half the inmates would have to be sent to several locations for two years.

Keen stated no one would be able to walk around in the new facility and would be released from Easton. Bob Werner suggested that it might be possible to market a new jail to another community on the basis of jobs produced. But John Cusick said a jail in another community like the Gracedale campus will be controversial, and recommended that the County retain good zoning counsel for what will obviously be a fight. "It's gonna' take time, effort and political will to move this ahead," he remarked. He added that this is not a Democratic or Republican issue, but is something that needs to be done to accomplish a "core function of county government."

Hayden Phillips stated that where the new jail goes is an administrative decision, but "this is something that needs to be fixed."

Acting Director of Administration Cathy Allen said the County is very serious about a new site, and will be back to Council in 30-60 days once funding sources are identified. She hinted that "some of the people we need to be in our corner will be in our corner." Bob Werner added, "There are people we have met with in the past that have changed. Positions have changed."

Ken Kraft wants to break ground now. "We have a 200 year-old prison and we have a morgue in a barn," he said. "That's Northampton County in a nutshell."


Anonymous said...

Its well known the med manslab had a blast cooped up in 666 Walnut with Sparticus , Harvey,and Mike Piper, the pruno was flowing and greggys keister was glowing!

Anonymous said...

Jails are supposed to be hellholes, not Holiday Inns.

Anonymous said...

"We have a 200 year-old prison and we have a morgue in a barn," he said. "That's Northampton County in a nutshell."

Why change works well already? Rotting in a crappy jail sends a message that a modern facility with cable television, weight rooms and all the other benefits of a home doesn't.

In the 19th Century, convicts used to be forced to build their own prisons. Lifting rocks and moving them to build the walls they'd be living behind. Also they need to be given constant bible studies. They should sing hymns to the lord as part of their pennance to society. That's what a "penitentiary" is all about. Not making sure the walls have coordinated paint on them.

Anonymous said...

So they would prefer to sink millions into our convicts but not our elderly at Gracedale?

Anonymous said...

Incarcerate the mentally ill.
It's the American way.

Anonymous said...

I'm all for a larger jail, incarceration of criminals prevents them from committing crimes against my family. As far as treating animals better than criminals, few animals cause the problems that criminals do. Animals don't rape, rob, or steal.

High incarceration rates contribute to diminished crime rates.

Anonymous said...

And where is Mr. Brown during all this debate on a tax increasing new jail facility? Galavanting around the state running for a higher office with higher pay. This moron wanted the top job in NC and after two years on it, he wants a higher paying job. Along with the yearly dysfunctional county council and the inane in-actions of the county executive, that's "NC in a nutshell". All of them should be thrown out and new blood elected!

Anonymous said...

Stoffa was right and yet again here we are discussing the darn jail. Been kicking this can down the road for decades now. Bring work release back in town as you at least have bus service and can walk to a job. Let the women stay in the newer tower on Union and turn W. Easton into a max. protect building as it is expandable and Atiyeh will cut the county a deal to do it...again. Also...courts need to stop sending so many to the jail. Stop incarcerating for non payment of alimony and child support. It solves nothing and creates more issues. Use your brains council and do it right this time. No need to build in Nazareth area.

Anonymous said...

Screw the jailhouse staffers & convicted criminals!

Get into another line of work (staffers) and stop committing crimes (convicts)!

Anonymous said...

Glen Reibman had a 4 phase jail project, that was paid for by the taxpayers , years ago. We paid over $6 million in the architecture plans alone, that had to be repeated, due to dysfunction and disagreement. It is not the taxpayers fault, that from one administration to the next, and the next, the problems continue, and nothing gets done. If I stand correct, only one phase of the jail project was completed from the Reibman years. Then Stoffa came in and built a useless rental for human services, and another useless work release in West Easton. Again, not my fault that we keep electing dumbos to the highest office in the County.

Go back to the Reibman plan and start there. We already paid for that plan, and I am not willing to start all over again, to waste millions and millions more.

Anonymous said...

Shut down the cesspool that is a mechanical / maintenance mess. Keep the new (2006) tower to capacity. Pay other counties to house our inmates. Lay off half the corrections staff. Use that savings to pay rent in other counties. No more jail expansion projects.

Anonymous said...

Lets not forget the hassle and expense caused by the author of this blog, and his cohort, Ron Angle, when they sued the Reibman administration over the bond sale that was going to handle a rational jail expansion. Due to the conduct of these idiots, the bonding became twice as expensive, and took loads of cash out of the project itself.

Reminder to taxpayers, when you elect dysfucntional assholes, like Ron Angle, who habitually uses free legal services from a disbarred asshole, the only ones who pay for it are the taxpayers.

Bernie O'Hare said...


It helps to have the facts instead of talking from blind hatred.

Ron Angle was not a party to that lawsuit, although he agreed with it. I was joined by other NorCo residents, Democrat and Republican, in a suit challenging a $110 MM bond on the basis that there must be real cost estimates for the work being done. We succeeded. I believe that this was only the second time in the history of the state that a bond challenge was successful. The Commonwealth Court reversed, but the Pa Supreme Court vindicated us. The County did the bond over for $111 million, and this time it succeeded.

My main objection to both bonds was the use of public money to benefit private enterprise. It arguably violates the Pa. State Constitution, which has provisions banning that practice because of the state's experience in funding railroads, which nearly bankrupted the state. The jail expansion is probably the only part of that bond I did not oppose. I was outraged by the $29 MM in economic giveaways, which was corporate welfare, done as a re-election gimmick.

I also opposed and the completely unnecessary courthouse expansion, which was a monument to the ego of judges. Anyone who visits the new courthouse can see I was correct. It is a monstrosity that only reserves the judges while treating the public who use the building like garbage. I have great respect for the judges as judges but not as building architects.

According to Reibman, that $29 million in corporate welfare would translate into 30,000 jobs. That never happened. According to Reibman, this bond would pay for itself. It resulted in a 65% tax hike over two years as well as the first layoffs in county history. I admit it did help spark revitalization of Bethlehem's south side, and probably could have been persuaded to drop that part of the bond challenge directed at the urban core. .

It was a well-considered challenge that succeeded the first time, failed the second, and I believe I could have won it on appeal to the Supreme Court but I ran out of money. There are others who feel my constitutional argument would have always failed.

The one part of the bond that I never opposed was the jail expansion. I even urged county officials to do a separate bond on that point.

Ironically, the lawsuit made the bond cheaper. Interest rates dropped as the suit was heard and may have saved the county as much as $20 million in debt service.

It was a poorly conceived bond. Time has proven me correct.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"Pay other counties to house our inmates. Lay off half the corrections staff."

Your solution does not address the women or mental health issues. It farms out half the jail's population. That's 366 inmates housed elsewhere. The going rate to house an inmate in another county is $70 per day. That's $9,351,300 a year and will grow every year. It's an incredibly stupid suggestion.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Not really. Deprivation of freedom is punitive enough, but treating people like animals cause them to engage in the very behavior that caused them to be incarcerated in the first place. There needs to be much more of a focus on rehabilitation than exists.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Deleted two comments. One attempts to deflect attention away from this story with misinformation about the bond. Another cites an unnamed newspaper, without linking to it.

Anonymous said...

Will the new drug court alleviate some of the problem? Also, legalize marijuana.

Anonymous said...

Deprivation of freedom is sometimes necessary for those who have demonstrated that they cannot exist in society without harming themselves and others. My biggest problem with another expansion, is due to the facts that there were already 2 expansions..2006 and 2012, yet we see no decrease in the numbers on the criminal dockets, and we have an unnacceptable recidivism rate. There is no benefit to society or an inmate by building more jails. If the jail is unsafe, shut it down and send the inmates to a county who has not mismanaged its jail for decades on end.

At what point do the taxpayers have any say in this matter? Or do we just continue to take it in the ass as usual, to prop up the Morganelli prison industry complex that always fulfills big government and big spending? There must be a dozen people every week brought before judges by a probation officer for 'failure to pay' issues. Why is that? Because John is too lazy to try cases, and is content to shuffle people into his ARD program, which is incredibly expensive for the defendant. Then they wind up in jail anyway.

As a taxpayer, I do not reward incompetance with more money.

Bernie O'Hare said...

11:45, Taxpayers have a say at the polls. If you feel strongly enough, you can go the initiative and referendum route. It is ridiculous to blame the DA for prosecuting criminals. That's his job. You have some other beef with him, probably completely unrelated to this. We need a new jail. Where it goes and how much we want to spend are questions that could be explored, but the old jail needs to close.

Anonymous said...

Keep the mentally ill in jail, it keeps them out of the Mall.

Anonymous said...

Butterbean Kean is admirably regurgitating an issue that has been beaten like a mule for decades. Council may actually help act on this since the last couple of years have been the least productive by both council and this sorry administration.

Anonymous said...

Another option that was presented to the previous administration was having a pre-adjudication facility in Easton and a post-adjudication facility shared with Lehigh County at the Salisbury Annex. Transportation costs would be minimal. Shared administrative costs and rehabilitation programs would be split. Zoning is already provided.