Members of the public had a chance this week to convey their aspirations for Lancaster County’s new correctional facility to the team hired to design it.
“We fully understand how important this is to your community,” Brian Endler of TranSystems told those who attended the Wednesday evening “listening session” at the Lancaster County Government Center.
“It’s just as important to us,” he assured them.
Two weeks ago, the Lancaster County commissioners approved a contract with TranSystems, following the unanimous recommendation of a county committee that evaluated it and three other bidders.
Over the next four months, the company and its partners are to develop a schematic design for the new complex, along with a budget estimate. Along with TranSystems, the team includes HDR, which has expertise in correctional healthcare; Professional Systems Engineering (security technology and electronics); Camacho (kitchen and laundry design) and JEM Group (independent cost estimating).
No decisions have yet been made on the project’s size, number of beds or cost, Purchasing Director Linda Schreiner said: “We are just starting.”
It is expected to be the most expensive project in county government history. In Berks County, a recent cost estimate for a similar project came in at more than $300 million.
County and prison officials declined to offer a budget estimate. It’s simply too early in the process, Warden Cheryl Steberger said.
Endler and his colleagues emphasized both their own resumes and their firms’ depth of expertise.
TranSystems and its predecessor entity, L.R. Kimball, have 45 years of experience in designing correctional facilities in 13 states. They have an extensive Pennsylvania portfolio, with projects in 41 counties.
HDR, meanwhile, is the world’s largest healthcare architectural and engineering firm. It is a leader in implementing “biophilic design principles” that reduce stress on inmates and staff, the firm’s director of justice practice, Gerry Guerrero, said.
“We’re bringing best practices from all over the country right here to Lancaster,” Endler said.
Wednesday’s listening session was the project’s third. As in the previous ones, members of the public who spoke called for pursuing alternatives to incarceration, especially pretrial incarceration, saying reforms could produce significant population reductions and allow a smaller facility to be built.
They also called for providing abundant space at the new site for mental health and substance abuse disorder treatment and rehabilitation programs, something county and prison leaders say is a priority for them as well.
While it’s important to offer treatment at the facility, it’s important that it not become the default place to send individuals with mental illness or addiction issues, said Gail Groves Scott, a local addiction researcher and treatment advocate.
Incarceration makes recovery harder, so the county needs robust treatment outside the criminal justice system, she said.
Pretrial detainees account for close to 70% of the prison’s headcount. Pretrial incarceration disproportionately affects poor and non-White communities and “impoverishes individuals, families and our community as a whole,” Greg Newswanger said.
Improving pretrial monitoring and providing better notification of court dates via phone call or text message could keep more people out of jail, Beth Reeves and Lancaster Bail Fund founder Michelle Batt said. Batt has called for the county to reconsider its pretrial policies and its criminal justice system but said she has been “largely unsuccessful.”
At previous meetings, county President Judge David Ashworth has said that local discretion on pretrial policy is constrained by state law and budget limitations. He and District Attorney Heather Adams say that the county’s diversion courts and other measures show it is making efforts to limit imprisonment.
Commissioner Josh Parsons said in December that the new site’s capacity has to be based on best-guess projections, and that it can’t be built smaller as an attempt to influence court policy.
Newswanger and Reeves are members of Lancaster Quaker Meeting, as are husband and wife Joe DiGarbo and Anne Wallace-DiGarbo. Wallace-DiGarbo asked that the new correctional facility have plenty of space for initiatives such as the Alternatives to Violence Project, a volunteer-run conflict resolution workshop. DiGarbo read a statement from the congregation’s working group calling for it to have a separate dedicated unit for individuals with serious mental illness.
Warden Steberger has expressed frustration over the existing prison’s constraints and said her team is eager to have more space for treatment and programming.
When TranSystems delivers its schematic design and budget estimate, there will be a “hold point” before things proceed further. That will be a key moment, Commissioner John Trescot told One United Lancaster.
That will be the time to debate, double-check and lock down all the decisions on size, layout, programming and so on, he said. There will be detailed 3D computer renderings for county and prison officials and the public to see, as well as cost breakdowns for the various components.
“You’re going to have things you can actually talk about,” he said. “You’re going to have dimensions and costs.”
The county is planning a listening session at that point. There may also be one about midway through the schematic design phase, to provide a status update.
The pause can last as long as necessary, Trescot said — even a couple of months, if that’s what it takes for decision-makers to work through any changes and modifications and reach consensus.
“Don’t release the rest of contract until you get that done,” he said: Once design development and engineering begin in earnest, revisions become much harder and more expensive.
TranSystems is being paid $1.4 million for the schematic design phase. Assuming the county sticks with the firm for the rest of the project, it would be paid an additional fee of 3.5% of the approved construction budget.