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United Way of Lancaster County


At correctional facility listening session, speakers maintain focus on reducing size

County and design team leaders face the audience at a public listening session on the new correctional facility on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024, at the County Government Center. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

Community advocates continued making their case Wednesday evening for Lancaster County to dial down the capacity numbers for the correctional facility it is planning and direct more resources toward diversion efforts, mental health and drug treatment, and social services.

“Why build a bigger jail when we have an opportunity to invest in preventative front-end solutions?” Michelle Batt said.

Batt, founder and president of the Lancaster Bail Fund, was the first member of the public to speak at the latest listening session on the project, the fourth overall, which was held at the County Government Center. Its topic: The draft programming document (PDF) released late last year.

Prepared by a team led by CGL, a consulting firm working on the county’s behalf (and whose contract term the county extended this week), it outlines the facility’s space needs and their interrelation to each other. In line with the needs assessment that preceded it, it calls for a total bed count of 1,212, housed in a facility totaling a little over 480,000 square feet, or about half again as large as the existing County Prison.

For more information

To learn about Lancaster County’s correctional facility project, visit the project website. Items available there include a tentative timeline, PDFs of the needs assessment and programming draft and summaries of previous listening sessions.

LNP reports that TranSystems, the firm heading the design engineering, has said costs could reach $600 to $700 per square foot. If so, that would work out to a total of roughly $300 million.

The programming draft is to come before the Board of Commissioners for action later this month, said county Director of Purchasing Linda Schreiner, who moderated Wednesday’ session. Once the board approves it — either as presented or with edits — it will guide the project’s design.

To date, Schreiner stressed, no final decisions have been made.

County and design team leaders at the listening session included, from left: Purchasing Director Linda Schreiner, Ed Whatley and Wayne Freeh of CGL, Brian Endler of TranSystems, Warden Cheryl Steberger and General Services Director Bob Devonshire. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

Previous reductions

As promised, the event was somewhat more interactive than before, with representatives of the county and CGL offering occasional responses. The majority of the session, though, consisted of public comment.

Many of the roughly dozen county residents who spoke are members of advocacy groups and have talked at previous sessions. Since the project was announced, they have been calling on the county to downsize its vision.

Michelle Batt (Source: OUL file photo)

Batt said the county could cut the projected bed need in half by doing what it did in the early 2010s.

At that time, headcounts were around 1,200, well above the County Prison’s rated capacity of 1,085. To address overcrowding, the judicial system convened a review committee to evaluate commitment decisions and policies. It was effective: The population ebbed, and since 2019 the yearly average has remained below 800.

That committee, now inactive, should reconvene, Batt said; moreover, she said, even if it doesn’t, lower incarceration rates may be coming anyway.

Pennsylvania has a new, progressive probation law; the state Supreme Court is considering changes to bail policy and a lawsuit challenging Lancaster County’s bail practices remains pending.

Kent Kroehler is secretary of the advocacy group Have a Heart. It has provided extensive suggestions for the new site, which county officials and their design team have pledged will incorporate best practices and a focus on treatment and rehabilitation.

“It’s evident you listened,” he told them, yet the documents released so far still largely reflect a business-as-usual approach. The aim of changing lives should be front and center, he said, but that isn’t apparent: “Why is such a vision not boldly expressed?”

John Maina

Reform advocate John Maina said he worked at the County Prison in the era of its population peak. To manage a large population effectively, he said you need enough staff, and the payroll to match.

In his experience, he said, he and his fellow guards were too busy to provide anything but “adult day care.”

“I think 1,200 is failure,” he said.

Numbers and policies

Gregory Newswanger, of Lancaster Friends Meeting, cited figures from the needs assessment indicating that Lancaster County’s average length of detention is 58 days, versus a national average of 35 days. Bringing the local average down to that level would reduce needed capacity by 380 people, he said.

Beth Reeves of Power Interfaith noted that most inmates are awaiting trial — two-thirds or more, according to county data — that a preponderance of arrests stem from drug abuse and mental illness, and that most inmates have been incarcerated before. The county is wasting tax dollars on an ineffective approach, she said, calling instead for expanding community treatment resources.

A county judge, however, pushed back vigorously against the notion that further population reductions can be readily achieved, or that the new project can safely be put on hold to explore that possibility.

Judge Dennis Reinaker

Judge Dennis Reinaker was on the Prison Board when the population was peaking and was heavily involved in the effort to reduce it.

“We changed the culture here,” he said, and since then, local judges have striven to keep defendants out of jail if at all possible.

Sometimes, he said, it isn’t. Pretrial detentions generally fall into two categories, he said. One is inmates facing serious charges, who may need to be confined to protect the public. The remainder, “almost without fail,” are people who have missed previous court dates.

It’s not fair to law enforcement or victims to delay proceedings because defendants haven’t shown up, he said: In those cases, “we really have no choice.”

The existing County Prison is inadequate, Reinaker continued: Replacing it can’t wait. Nor can the design team plan the new facility’s capacity based on hopes for policy changes that may or may not materialize, he said, adding that in his view, the projections “are good numbers.”

Several comments Wednesday did address issues other than total size. Teri Miller-Landon, of Compass Mark and Ambassadors for Hope, urged the design team not to skimp on areas for in-person parent-child visits. Keeping incarcerated parents connected with their children reduces recidivism and trauma, she said.

In response to a question about environmental considerations, county General Services Director Bob Devonshire said the county is already talking about stormwater management and the possibility of green energy — specifically, a geothermal system, like one in the adjacent park.