By Howard Frank
STROUDSBURG, Pa. — Concerns about overcrowding continue to plague the Monroe County Correctional Facility, which consistently operates near or above capacity.
And don't expect it to get better anytime soon, officials warned.
The correctional facility is certified to hold a maximum of 409 inmates. As of Tuesday morning, the population was 390. By the end of the day, the population jumped to 407 inmates.
And last month's average daily count was 408 — just one inmate shy of its certified maximum.
"Law enforcement has advised that they do not see the growth in commitments to the jail slowing down anytime soon," Warden Donna Asure said at a meeting of the Monroe County Prison Board on Tuesday. "Maximum security as well as the segregated units which house inmates with medical needs and those on watches are constantly filled to the brim."
The jail's all-time high inmate population followed the March arrest of about 50 people, mostly Pocono residents, in three separate prescription drug rings.
The arrests were part of a multi-agency law enforcement operation dubbed "Script King" that broke up groups that raked in $10 million in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, according to state and federal authorities.
According to police, two men traveled from Pennsylvania to New York City to get oxycodone prescriptions for their 50 or so Pennsylvania co-conspirators who filled the prescriptions locally.
That bust swelled the prison's ranks to 441, its highest ever.
Law enforcement authorities gave prison officials a vague heads-up prior to the bust so the facility could be staffed and prepared for an influx of prisoners.
"We knew the storm was coming," said Monroe County District Attorney and Prison Board member David Christine said. "But more storms are coming," he warned.
Overcrowding forces the jail to send some overflow to other facilities, but the job of doing that is getting harder.
New regulations require prisoner transfer paperwork to be at the receiving facility in advance of the prisoner. Without it, Prison Board member and Sheriff Todd Martin said, "they'll turn you right around and send you back."
The jail makes adjustments when quarters get tight.
"We have placed two officers in units which normally would have one when the number of inmates goes over the normal number housed there," Asure said. "This is for officers as well as inmate safety."
And Asure said the Sheriff's Department works with her to get state-sentenced inmates sent to a state correctional facility as quickly as possible.
Martin suggested Monroe consider alternatives to incarcerating prisoners at its facility.
"We can't keep on storing and storing them anymore. We have to look at the diversionary programs," he said.
Christine suggested the jail may not be appropriate for all offenders.
"Do people have to be in as structured a facility as this, or should it be only those who need to be secured for their and the public's protection?" he asked.
The commissioners are looking at all alternatives to the overcrowding issue, according to Asure.
The average stay at the correctional facility was between 56 and 57 days, she said. Many of the inmates are incarcerated for drunken driving offenses.
Overcrowding will get worse if the recommendations of a recent study by the National Transportation Safety Board are adopted. The board proposed lowering the legal blood alcohol content limit from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent.
"The lower the rate, the more arrests. The more arrests, the higher the costs," Christine said.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
It costs the correctional facility about $80 a day to house an inmate, including medical costs.