Pa. state prisons don't have enough beds

The state prison system had recorded the largest decrease in 40 years

The Daily Item

SUNBURY, Pa. — More than 50,000 people are incarcerated in Pennsylvania prisons, but according to a state report, there are not enough beds for them.

The most recent state Department of Corrections report said there were 50,021 inmates locked up in January but only 47,047 had beds.

Department Secretary John Wetzel is doing everything he can to reduce the inmate population and has been traveling from prison to prison to implement new programs for families of incarcerated individuals.

He said Pennsylvania's prison population is the fourth fastest-growing population in the country.

Wetzel said in published reports that in 2015, the state released more than 20,000 inmates. He said he doesn't want to focus on the word "recidivism," but instead wants to focus on fixing communities.

Wetzel was appointed secretary of the Department of Corrections in 2011 by Gov. Tom Corbett. He was asked to stay on by Gov. Tom Wolf.

The Susquehanna Valley is home to two state prisons: the State Correctional Institution at Muncy, a women's prison in Lycoming County, and the State Correctional Institution at Coal Township, in Northumberland County. There also are state prisons in Frackville, Schuylkill County; Rockville, Centre County, and Camp Hill, Cumberland County.

Muncy had a population of 1,427 with only 1,410 beds, and Coal Township had 2,293 inmates and 2,153 beds, according to the most recent statistics.

Two of the most crowded facilities in January were the State Correctional Institution at Huntington, in Huntington County, with a population of 2,155 and only 1,804 beds and the State Correctional Institution at Greene, in Franklin Township, Greene County, with a population of 1,785 and beds for only 1,478.

"The DOC's most recent population report shows that our overall percent of capacity is 106.3 percent," department spokeswoman Susan McNaughton said. "This number is reduced from our highest point, which was 118 percent in October 2009."

The Department of Corrections announced at the beginning of the year that the state prison system had recorded the largest decrease in 40 years, McNaughton said.

"Our population has decreased by nearly 1,600 offenders over the past two years," she said. "The reduction was attributed to the bipartisan efforts that resulted from the Justice Reinvestment Initiative and to fewer offenders entering the system due to the increased use of diversionary-treatment courts; the use of effective programs within our prisons; parole process improvements; and fewer parole violators coming back into the system helped to reduce the population as well."

McNaughton said the department doesn't determine who should be placed in prison and that department officials try to work with lawmakers daily.

"Laws introduced and enacted over the years have helped to contribute to the prison population," she said. "DOC officials have been working for quite some time to educate lawmakers about the cost and population impacts their legislation can have upon the system."

The department's goal is to operate safe prisons and provide offenders with programs to reduce their likelihood of committing future crimes, which over time will reduce the state's prison population, McNaughton said.

"As Secretary Wetzel said at his recent appropriations hearing, a significant reduction in population could result in the DOC's ability to close entire housing units," she said. "At that point, that is where the system begins to experience true savings. We are pleased with the population reductions over the past two years and have a goal to continue to reduce our population. But none of this work will be done through 'early releases.' The DOC does not have the authority to release inmates."

State Rep. Patty Kim, D-103, of Dauphin County, said she has visited with ex-inmates who have said they keep re-entering the prison system because of lack of opportunities.

"Our goal is to keep people out of jail," Kim said. "The more inmates we have in prison doesn't mean we are safer on the outside. Unless you have gone through the steps of an ex-offender, it is very difficult to succeed post-prison. I spoke to enough people, and there are so many barriers to keep them from getting on their feet."

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