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Commissioners, warden endorse building a smaller correctional facility

From left: County commissioners Alice Yoder, Josh Parsons, Ray D’Agostino. Inset: The tract of Lancaster Township land bought for the county’s new correctional facility. (Source: OUL file photos)

Lancaster County should plan on building a correctional facility with around 1,000 beds, the three county commissioners and Warden Cheryl Steberger said Tuesday morning.

“I am very comfortable with a 1,000-bed unit,” Steberger said.

Her comment came during discussion at the commissioners’ work session of the project’s “programming draft.” Building on the needs assessment released at the end of 2022, it lays out space allocations and spatial relationships for the facility.

It had envisioned 29 housing units with a total of 1,212 beds, based on the needs assessment’s projection of required capacity in the year 2050. However, there’s much too much uncertainty involved in extending an estimate out that far, Commissioner Ray D’Agostino said.

For more information

The following documents are on the Lancaster County Correctional Facility project website:

Recent legislation and court decisions will influence inmate headcounts just in the next few years, he said, as will crime trends and demographics. It would be hard to ask taxpayers to foot the bill up front for a facility “that may not be in keeping with what our needs are,” he said.

Accordingly, he called for a “phased approach” — a smaller facility at first, but with provisions in place for future growth if needed. Facilities typically need a renovation at around the 20-year mark, he said, implying that could be a good point for future officials to revisit the capacity issue.

His colleagues, Josh Parsons and Alice Yoder, concurred.

“I want to build it as small as we can,” Parsons said. He said he doesn’t envision prison numbers rebounding to the 1,200 and 1,300 counts of a decade ago — the reforms, which he championed, that ensure cases move promptly through Lancaster County’s court system are now “baked into the system,” he said.

On the other hand, it needs to be large enough not to run out of room right away. “Potentially 950 (beds),” he said.

Yoder suggested possibly going as low as 900 beds. She proposed the county try “predictive modeling,” using computer data to run simulations showing how various policy changes would affect incarceration totals.

D’Agostino disagreed. All models grow highly uncertain when you extend them more than a few years out, he said: Let’s “use what we have.”

Next up: Schematics

The commissioners’ discussion took place in anticipation of a vote Wednesday to approve the programming document. That would set the stage for the project team to move ahead with schematic design.

Besides the size question, Yoder and D’Agostino proposed several other revisions. The commissioners agreed Tuesday to postpone the vote until next week or the week after to allow edits to be made.

Linda Schreiner, the county’s director of purchasing, said the design team will be able to continue work in the meantime, so there shouldn’t be any delay in the overall project.

Michelle Batt

Community advocates have consistently pushed for county leaders to consider downsizing the correctional facility plan. Bail reform and other policy changes could significantly reduce capacity needs, Michelle Batt, founder and president of the Lancaster Bail Fund, has contended at project listening sessions and Prison Board meetings.

“I am nothing short of thrilled to learn that the commissioners are giving serious consideration to building smaller,” she told One United Lancaster in an email Tuesday. “The fact that they pushed back the vote on the draft program report demonstrates their collective commitment to taking this slow, looking at the whole picture and being responsible stewards.”

Central booking, sustainability

Apart from the issue of facility size, D’Agostino’s main request for revision had to do with the draft’s discussion of housing. It should be clearer, he said, that the housing units, which comprise 57% of total square footage, will include space for meals, education and treatment programs and so on, not just beds.

Click to enlarge. (Source: LCCF Facility Program Draft Report)

He also suggested the county take steps now to incorporate central booking in the facility’s design. It may not be “operationalized” right away, he said, but it would be prudent to plan for it. His colleagues agreed.

Central booking allows police to drop off arrested individuals at the prison, with intake handled from that point on by on-site staff — prison employees, sheriff’s deputies or both. At present, the prison has a limited central booking system, but police are still responsible for certain aspects, such as breath tests or blood tests for intoxicants.

County and local law enforcement officials have been discussing moving to a fully centralized system, but there are still questions to be hashed out regarding the division of responsibility and cost, Steberger and Parsons said.

Yoder’s notes were more extensive. The draft’s introduction should be clearer and more focused on overarching principles, she said, while the whole document should incorporate person-first language and emphasize the design team’s trauma-informed approach. Environmental sustainability should be highlighted, too, suggesting the building could even be “net zero.”

Parsons and D’Agostino agreed the county is interested in sustainability and minimizing energy costs, although probably not net zero. As for Yoder’s other edits, Parsons asked her to weigh them against the necessity of getting the draft finalized and improved.

County officials have emphasized that the programming document remains only a guideline, even after approval. The county will need to weigh its goals for the correctional facility against costs, Parsons said. All aspects of the project, including size, remain subject to potential revision until construction contracts are signed and work commences.