At the first Prison Board meeting of 2024, Lancaster County’s newest commissioner called for the inclusion of current and former inmates and their families in the planning of the county’s new correctional facility.
During the Thursday morning session, Commissioner Alice Yoder said Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, her previous employer, obtained valuable, actionable insights when it secured input from people with “lived experience” in the course of planning construction projects.
Listening sessions like the one held last week are helpful, she said, but it can be intimidating to stand up and speak in front of a large audience. Creating a survey or convening focus groups would better enable the team planning the correctional facility to hear from justice-involved individuals and their loved ones, she said.
“I agree with you,” Warden Cheryl Steberger responded.
The proposal was not immediately fleshed out further; those details can be handled administratively, Commissioner Josh Parsons said.
Court protocols and prison numbers
Yoder’s call to action came during a discussion of County Prison headcounts. For the past year, monthly averages ranged from the low 700s to about 800, down from a high of around 1,300 a little over a decade ago.
The reduction stemmed from concerted intentional efforts on the part of the courts and law enforcement. A big part of it came from speeding up the sequence of court actions and reducing wait times, said Commissioner Josh Parsons, a former prosecutor.
Yoder gave credit as well to the district attorney’s diversion programs and the court system’s treatment courts. Still, she said, there’s no grounds to be complacent: Officials should consider whether such efforts can be scaled up further.
That’s a goal that community advocates have been pushing for. They say enhancing treatment programs and reducing pretrial detention could allow for a much smaller new facility to be built than the 1,212-bed correctional facility envisioned in the county’s needs assessment and draft program, which they have deprecated as “business as usual.”
Despite claims to the contrary, the county’s justice system hasn’t stopped trying to reduce the number of people it sends to prison, President Judge David Ashworth said Thursday: “We continue to use best practices.”
He noted that changes will be coming this June when the probation reform bill signed by Gov. Josh Shapiro last month takes effect. County courts and law enforcement have convened a task force to prepare.
Among other things, the law sets new rules for initial hearings on parole and probation violations. In the short term, it’s likely to necessitate more manpower, but in the long run, it’s expected to reduce caseloads, he and Parsons said.
Mark Wilson, Chief of Adult Probation & Parole, said when he checked the numbers last summer, around 30% to 38% of inmates were being held on parole violations, either with or without additional new charges.
At last week’s listening session, Judge Dennis Reinaker said pretrial detention typically either involves serious charges or individuals who have missed multiple court dates.
In other business at Thursday’s meeting:
- County Director of General Services Bob Devonshire said a new chlorine pump installed at the County Prison shortly after Thanksgiving to combat its legionella problems appears to be working. All testing conducted since the installation has come back negative, he said.
- Warden Steberger introduced a dozen new correctional officers who started at the County Prison on Monday. Their hiring reduces the institution’s staff shortfall to 32, she said less than half the deficit of three years ago. The prison is currently funded for 247 positions.
- Steberger reviewed the Jan. 4 death of inmate Michael J. Owens, 54, of Ronks, who was found unresponsive in his cell during a routine check. Despite prompt efforts by prison staff and emergency personnel, he could not be revived, Steberger said; the coroner determined Owens died of a heart attack. In response to a question, Steberger and Commissioner Parsons said the prison and county don’t have a formal policy on reporting inmate deaths, but they do their best to provide all the information they have as soon as they can.