Age, construction makes Pa. county prison hard to guard
Some parts of the Luzerne County Prison date back to when Ulysses S. Grant was president, Mississippi rejoined the union and plans for the Brooklyn Bridge were finalized
By Peter Cameron
The Citizens' Voice
WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — Vince Horoschock mans the booth on the fifth floor of the Luzerne County Correctional Facility five days a week, unlocking doors from his glowing control panel, taking calls from other corrections officers and keeping track of the inmates by camera, and with his own eyes.
But because of the layout of the prison, a few hundred feet from the Susquehanna River in Wilkes-Barre, the mustached guard cannot fully do that from his post. To check the spot tucked behind the booth, the jail must position another officer inside the cell block when prisoners in green uniforms are allowed to roam freely in medium security. Otherwise, Horoschock must leave his post to do a scan.
"Gotta know they're here," the 25-year veteran said of the prisoners on his floor. "If they ain't here, we're in trouble."
Parts of the prison are ancient. Ulysses S. Grant was president, Mississippi rejoined the union and plans for the Brooklyn Bridge were finalized the year Luzerne County completed the original castle-like facility in 1870.
The "grandiose, tower design" and "huge, thick walls" were characteristics of prisons built in that era, according to J. Allen Nesbitt, the new head of correctional services in Luzerne County.
"The theory was, that was the way you kept them in," said Nesbitt, who collects postcards of old Pennsylvania prisons.
In 1987, badly in need of an update and more space, a diamond-shaped five-story tower was placed in the middle of the older U-shaped prison. Double murder suspect Hugo Selenski famously escaped from a window on the top floor of the tower in 2006 using bed sheets.
The added tower, while providing a good amount of beds, consequently requires a great number of guards to keep watch over its many "nooks and crannies" and "tight corners," Nesbitt said. He and Acting Warden James Larson estimated the county could halve the number of corrections officers it employs with a new, flatter and more openly designed facility - for an annual savings of about $6 million. The correctional services budget is currently set at nearly $30 million each year.
Because the building is landlocked, blocking any possible expansion, county Manager Robert Lawton has said he will commission a study on the viability of building a new facility - mainly to see if the construction of a multimillion-dollar prison could, in fact, save the county money from the beginning - and have the results within a year.
"If it doesn't pencil out, then we walk away from it and we stay with what we have," he said during an interview in his office last week.
'Six separate jails'
To assess the current state of the prison, a team from The Citizens' Voice toured the 508-bed facility last month, on a no-vacancy day.
When new inmates arrive, usually escorted by police, they enter into a cramped intake area on the ground floor and are greeted by a corrections officer separated from them by a window. A tiny sign reading "no whining" is taped to the glass. They swap their possessions and clothes for a shower, green prison scrubs and a medical examination.
As they move through the labyrinthine hallways on to their cells, they pass a single, cramped laundry room responsible for the clothes of all prisoners in the facility. A large, stainless steel kitchen, where inmates in white uniforms prepare 2,100 meals a day, sits across the hall and groans along with the sound of fans and other machinery.
A well-behaved, non-violent offender can get work there and make between $40 and $65 per 13-hour day, depending on the job. Earnings can be spent at the commissary on items like snacks, hygiene products and decks of cards, but inmates only receive cash when they are released.
With Nesbitt and Larson as guides, the team moved to the top floor by elevator. By necessity, a lot of movement of prisoners happens this way, another complication of the current structure.
With five floors numbered 1-5 above the ground level, the prison is like "six separate jails," Larson said.
The top floor was Selenski's home before he escaped, smashing out a window from his maximum-security cell and climbing to a few days of freedom.
He is the only prisoner to have cleared the whole facility since the renovation, Larson said. Fences and barbed wire were added to the grounds after his escape. Correctional services officials have also since inverted the jail to put maximum-security cells on the first floor, where they have no windows.
Now the fifth and top floor houses the medium-security prisoners. In one room, several inmates appeared before a judge by video while others peered at the visitors through the windows in their cell blocks.
"Interview me, man!" a smiling inmate yelled through the crack in the door. "I got a story."
In the control booth where Horoschock runs the board, one detainee asked "Vinny" by intercom if he could change rooms in order to pray with another inmate. It was Ramadan, the month-long Muslim religious period, and security tries to accommodate the spiritual practices of the inmates. Several Christian chaplains are on staff, and an imam and rabbi are also available. Horoschock told the prisoner to call back in 10 minutes after he checks with the higher-ups.
Larson pointed out the need for a second officer posted in with the prisoners. Without eyes everywhere, violence can break out, with inmates hurting each other or themselves.
In a new prison, laid out more openly, the same amount of prisoners could be monitored with just one officer, the correctional officials said.
But one prison authority from Western Pennsylvania issues caution. After Butler County opened a $44 million facility in 2009 with a slightly larger capacity than the jail in Luzerne County, Warden Rick Shaffer said his organization had to adjust its staffing expectations.
"Whatever they think they're going to staff it with, I guarantee five years later, they're going to be looking back saying 'you know what, we need more people,'" he said.
Lawton stepped carefully around the potential issue of prison staff layoffs, avoiding the word completely.
"Right-sizing corrections staff for a new facility is the underlining rationale for a new facility itself," he said. "It would be done through proper planning and it would be done with an advanced notice of up to five years" for employees.
The county currently employs 191 officers to fulfill minimum staffing posts at the correctional facility and monitor a population that lives together for long periods of time and can be prone to anger.
"It's like living with your wife 24 hours a day - you can't do it," Horoschock said.
Life on the block
Because inmates must be separated by gender, women are held exclusively on the fourth floor. At least one female officer is on-duty at all times. Ten percent of the prison population is female. Five inmates were pregnant during our tour.
In the female blocks, women sat at tables chatting quietly while a television bolted to the wall flickered above their heads. As long as behavior is good, inmates get control of the remote control. On the women's floor, they mostly watch MTV.
But the men like sports. Monday nights during football season and college basketball games in March find many prisoners in front of the tube.
"When it's a big sports day, we have very little trouble throughout the jail," Larson said.
But officers often have to bust inmates for trying to put together betting pools, he added.
The men in C Block on the third floor enjoy a little chess as well. Games were going in both hallways. The tight space is furnished with two small bunk beds, a desk, a trash can and a toilet. One of its inmates, a slight, goateed 26-year-old from Warrior Run, complained about the uncomfortable mattresses and the wimpies he had for lunch.
"I could go for a nice steak instead of this every day," he said.
He is in jail for harassing and assaulting a woman and marijuana possession, he said.
The cost to the county of housing an inmate is between $70 and $100 per day, Nesbitt said, depending on whether they are held in the prison, the minimum offenders unit up the hill or simply must check in to the day reporting center.
'Brokers for change'
The second floor contains the infirmary, where a doctor comes several times a week for examinations. The floor also includes the psychiatric ward and suicide watch. An inmate hired to keep an eye on this row of cells receives $6 per shift. One of his charges stared through a horizontal window which reveals only half his face.
While walking the halls, a call came over the radio for a medical emergency on another floor. Two corrections officers scrambled with a wheelchair, but had to wait for the elevator to arrive. One gave up and hustled down the stairs to reach the patient.
The last stop of the tour is the first floor, which contains the entrance to the L-shaped yard. That shape makes it difficult to monitor all the inmates, much like the rest of the prison, the corrections officials said. Basketball games are popular out there, and the inmates call their own fouls. Or not.
"Fouls?" Larson asked with a chuckle. "What are fouls?"
Games can get pretty rough in the yard.
The first floor also contains the prison's visiting area with phones and glass separators, a law library and a meeting room where the prison holds religious services and classes for drug and alcohol prevention and high school diplomas.
The construction of a new prison would allow for more classroom space, to increase the opportunities for inmates to receive some education to help them return to society and reduce the likelihood of their return, the corrections officials said. But even with the additional space, the prison employees cannot make anybody change their criminal ways, Nesbitt said. They can only serve as "brokers for change."
"We give them the tools every single time because you never know when that decision to change comes around," he said.