Commissioners talk ‘overspending’ at county prison

CLINTON COUNTY

LOCK HAVEN — With renovations coming to a close on the Clinton County Correctional Facility, commissioners addressed concerns that spending for the prison has gotten out of hand.

For reference, the county’s 2018 budget included an almost $300,000 increase in prison spending, for total expenses of approximately $6.6 million.

Additionally, the county expects only $4.2 million in prison revenue, meaning taxpayers would pick up the $2.4 million gap.

Commissioners have also acknowledged the county spends close to $70 a day to house a detainee at the prison.

Commissioner Jeff Snyder, who has been a proponent of reducing county spending overall, said he has been expressly concerned with the amount of money the county puts into the prison. He would not name names, but he said, in some cases, renovations were poorly planned and certain things did not happen when they should have.

However, he said, he doesn’t believe the commissioners made a mistake in renovating the prison. In fact, he said, the prison renovations will finish under budget with funds left over to be used on other capital projects.

Prior to considering renovations at the prison, in 2016, commissioners considered two options: close the prison, or privatize it.

But Snyder said there were few local surrounding prisons that could take on new prisoners, let alone 100 new ones. He was referring to the fact that the average daily in-county occupancy of the county prison is around 100 detainees.

He also said transportation costs would likely skyrocket if the county prison closed, due to mandated deputy visits and detainee travel to prisons in other counties.

“The cost to do that would’ve been very, very high,” Snyder said.

Moreover, he said, contracting the county prison to a private company would not have been economically viable. The county would have to pay a certain amount per diem to the company based on either the amount of prisoners in the facility or the amount of space in the facility.

A 1999 meta-analysis of 24 different studies on cost-effectiveness in private prisons found that there was inconclusive evidence on the cost-savings of privatizing a prison. That analysis also found there was little to no difference in costs.

Additionally, a 2005 study by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found there was no conclusive evidence on cost-savings from private prisons.

In 2011, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report saying private, for-profit prisons were actually more costly, more violent and held to lower standards than public prisons.

As for the county prison, two years ago, the facility’s equipment was deteriorating. Much of it was decades old, according to Warden John Rowley.

“If we had not done these renovations, the cost… on the county would be very high,” Snyder said.

Commissioner Pete Smeltz said the new heating and cooling units in the prison are more energy efficient, meaning they will eventually represent a cost-savings.

Commissioner Paul Conklin said the money the county has spent on the prison renovations will not actually increase the building’s “footprint,” as there are no new buildings or furnishings, just replacements and updates of existing structures. Ultimately, he said, the renovations will reduce the cost of electricity and other utilities.

Some of the larger increases in the county prison budget are due to the addition of mental health services and addiction treatment within the facility.

Prison medical contract expenses increased $85,000 from 2017 to 2018 because commissioners signed a new contract with Correctional Care Solutions, LLC, which provides medical, psychiatric and addiction treatment services. Commissioners estimate they hired around three to four new mental health care professionals for the prison in the past year.

Smeltz said several county commissioners of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania have told Clinton County it is ahead of other counties in terms of serving the mental health needs of its prison population.

But, he acknowledged, “we can’t make everybody happy.”

Conklin said mental health treatment in prisons is paramount to reducing recidivism rates of offenders.

“That draconian idea that you throw people in prison… to suffer… that is wrong,” he said.

Many of the inmates at the county jail suffer from co-occurring disorders, like drug addiction and mental illness.

He said 60 to 70 percent of those who finish their sentences land right back in prison, forcing taxpayers to pay to feed and house them. If these inmates were not treated, he said, they would continue to be a drain on the taxpayer.

“We gotta stop that (punitive) thinking and be forward-thinking,” he said.

Commissioners also stressed that the new mental health and addiction counseling services are for in-county inmates. Smeltz said other counties that house their inmates at CCCF have asked Clinton to treat their inmates. But he emphasized taxpayer money goes toward local inmates, because the county pledges to support them. He said he hopes someday those mental health services may be expanded to help out-of-county inmates.

Smeltz also said the revenues at the county prison are increasing because of the housing units the county rents to out-of-county inmates. By charging $70 a day for each out-of-county inmate, the county hopes to close the gap between what the prison spends and what it nets. The average number of out-of-county inmates hovers around 130 every month.

On a related note, Conklin said the state of Pennsylvania and CCAP are considering initiating a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies that contributed to the opioid addiction crisis through aggressive marketing and routine prescription of opioids.

He said if the state were to win the suit, it could receive tens of billions of dollars to then dole out to the state and local governments that participate.

“We are looking at getting on board with that,” he said. “Those funds will come right back to the county.”

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