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Schuylkill County News

Schuylkill Commissioners Desperately Want Pre-release Prison Fever Dream to Come True

We can barely afford the prison we have and they want to build a second one?

Lately, it seems Schuylkill County Commissioners are trying extra hard to prove to the public how badly they need to build a pre-release prison.

There are many names for this type of facility being used. Most don’t use the term “prison” but any place where people are sent and not allowed to leave, by law, without permission is most definitely a prison. No sugar-coating can change that.

This pre-release prison has been on Commissioners current and past’s wish list for decades now. But when it comes to pulling the trigger on OK’ing the money to build it, Commissioners consistently get the yips.

It definitely seems like the push is on once again to get this facility built. The Commissioners don’t know where it’ll be built and they really haven’t said how they’re going to pay for it. And no one is answering the question on how, if and when it’s built, the County is going to pay to operate it on an annual basis.

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The numbers to build it are staggering. And the numbers to operate it year after year in perpetuity are going to be huge, too, and will never decrease; that’s for sure.

But it seems like now, more than in decades past, the push is on to get this done. And the only realistic way it’ll probably get done is if the Schuylkill County taxpayer is footing the bill.

The Push to Build a Pre-release Prison in Schuylkill County

Schuylkill County Prison in Pottsville is consistently overcrowded and the County government pays more than $1 million a year housing overflow inmates in jails in other counties. But is that money a bargain compared to building and operating a pre-release prison that Schuylkill County Commissioners want to build? (Coal Region Canary photos)

It’s very obvious that the Commissioners are trying to lay it on really thick that they believe this pre-release prison is a necessity.

However, it’s also very obvious that those same Commissioners, unless they’ve secretly planted a money tree somewhere, don’t have the funds to build it or operate it.

Will that stop them?

In just the last month, the signs are very clear that this has become top priority at the Courthouse.

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Election Winners Say They’re In on Pre-release Prison

Let’s go back to Election Night. In an interview with The Canary at their victory celebration, Commissioner Boots Hetherington and Commissioner-elect Larry Padora both said a pre-release prison is one of their top priorities.

Commissioner Gary Hess, who also won election this year, has also said numerous times that he’s in favor of a pre-release prison.

In a post-election interview with The Canary, Hess said he believes the County government could save money in the long run, a “lot of money” in fact, by building and operating a pre-release prison over continuing to send inmates elsewhere.

So, if it ever came to a vote in the near future, it’s hard to find a dissenting voice among the three of them on moving forward with the project.

Big Bucks Budget Adjustment

Then, just two days after the election, at their next Commissioners meeting, the board approved a whopping $520,000 budget adjustment for the prison. And $445,000 of that is going toward outsourcing inmates from the local jail to other counties to ease overcrowding here.

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Commissioners have said there wouldn’t be such an overcrowding problem with a pre-release prison locally. They say many of the people in Schuylkill County Prison are there on non-violent drug offenses and would be better served being in a pre-release prison.

That’s debatable but what is certain is if that overflow from the existing prison were sent to a pre-release prison in Schuylkill County, it would seem to justify the need the Commissioners say we have for such a facility.

Another $75,000 of that big budget adjustment is to cover expected wages and overtime payments to prison staff between the date this money was approved and the end of 2023.

While the Commissioners and County officials usually speak the bare minimum on these budget adjustments, this one seemed to spark a long conversation. Suddenly, they’re all so willing to freely talk about this money. Interesting when they’re often so tight-lipped.

On that $445,000 budget adjustment, County Finance Director Paul Buber told Commissioners, “There was money included in the budget for this year but the anticipated cost or expense is going to be greater than what was budgeted and therefore, this is the best good faith estimate in terms of what will be needed between now and the end of the year.”

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Engineer Contract Extended on Pre-release Prison

Just last week, the Commissioners approved a contract extension with the firm of Crabtree, Rohrbaugh & Associates. The County has turned to this firm several times in the past. And its job is to conduct a “needs assessment and analysis” for a hypothetical pre-release prison.

That contract, which expired at the end of September, was extended until March 2024.

It’s Obvious They Want to Do It: But Will They, How Will They, Where Will They, and Should They?

When it first came on the market, Schuylkill County Commissioners were quietly trying to buy the former GIANT grocery store in downtown Pottsville to potentially turn it into a proposed pre-release prison. They were soundly scolded for that dreadful idea and eventually backed down.

These are just the examples of this push in the last few weeks. But this has been a fever dream of the County government’s for some time.

The Commissioners don’t really have to sell the public on the idea of it – they’ve proven time and again they’ll do something even if it’s not popular – but it seems they want to do that so you think they’re doing a great job.

They also want to do this in a way where, if they come to you looking for more money in order to fund this project, you won’t mind shelling out more in order to get it built and running.

So, will they? Yes, if they can all get on the same page about it. Absolutely.

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How will they? They’re probably just going to come to you for the money. We’ve already shown and they’ve admitted they have no extra money laying around to fund this.

The 2024 budget proposal came up more than $10 million short, by their own admission. And that shortfall was plugged by using dwindling COVID relief funds. Once that’s gone, the answer on how the Commissioners plan to build this facility, first, becomes that much trickier.

Heck, the question on how to fund the government sans pre-release prison will be tricky to answer without those COVID bucks on standby.

But let’s assume they’ve already decided that this is definitely going to happen. They’ve plucked their money tree and gathered the funds to build a pre-release prison. Where will they build it?

One of the top options right now seems to be using the former Schuylkill Transportation System headquarters in the St. Clair Industrial Park. This plan falls right in line with their penchant for taking or keeping potentially lucrative commercial properties off the market and a non-taxable property.

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Remember, there were rumors swirling that they were going to buy the former GIANT grocery store in downtown Pottsville to put this pre-release prison there until everyone and their mothers told them that was a dreadful idea.

Now, How to Fund a Pre-release Prison in Schuylkill County

Whether it’s here, there, or anywhere in Schuylkill County, the Commissioners will be faced with a more pressing problem … How in the world are they going to pay for this?

The Commissioners love to say that the County is losing so much money by outsourcing inmates from Schuylkill County Prison to other facilities in other counties.

Depending on how much the person believes we should build this new pre-release prison is how much they’ll tell you it costs.

But do the numbers really add up to their hysteria? Not really.

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Now, we’re not factoring in the cost of Sheriff’s Dept. employees actually driving the inmates to these out-of-county lockups. However, we can assure you that that cost plus the actual cost the Prison endures through temporary housing of these inmates elsewhere pales in comparison to what a pre-release prison would cost to build and operate.

We examined a year’s worth of prison financial statements and learned that between December 2022 and October 2023, Schuylkill County spent $1,351,204.73 on temporary housing (out-of-county) of inmates.

Temporary housing spent ($)Avg. inmates outsourced
December 202270,149.3642
January 2023056
February 202359,034.3256
March 202345,612.6460
April 2023285,805.4966
May 2023151,458.8772
June 2023166,456.9677
July 2023174,046.2165
August 2023153,276.0358
September 2023135,114.8558
October 2023110,250.0053

During that Nov. 9 meeting, Commissioner George Halcovage asked Buber some questions about pre-release prison costs. His line of questioning seems to indicate he’s opposed to building the facility, especially if it doesn’t make financial sense.

First, he noted that an historic evaluation of the cost vs. cost analysis of outsourcing inmates vs. housing them locally in a pre-release center indicated that Schuylkill County would have to spend at least $2 million a year on outsourcing to make it financially viable to build a pre-release center. Buber agreed.

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Note the number we just revealed and realize that $1.3 million is well shy of $2 million.

Buber also noted for Halcovage that the $2 million figure was from several years ago but more importantly, it only covered the brick-and-mortar expense of building the pre-release prison.

Halcovage asked Buber how much, approximately, it cost to run Schuylkill County Prison on an annual basis. Buber, without hard numbers in hand at the time, agreed with an estimate that it costs $9 million to operate the local jail every year.

The soon-to-be ex-Commissioner suggested that a pre-release prison could cost in the neighborhood of another $7 million to operate.

Even if that number isn’t completely accurate, it will cost in the millions to operate and cost the County money in terms of things it annually bemoans and frankly, can’t afford … employees and their benefits. Those are costs that won’t ever come down.

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This is a Fever Dream

Unfortunately, at least in terms of this particular subject, the one Commissioner of late that appears to be at least asking the right questions about the potential for a pre-release prison in Schuylkill County – Halcovage – isn’t going to be around for much longer.

Soon, we’ll have 3 Commissioners who are on somewhat of the same page when it comes to this idea and moving forward with it. But is it the right page?

One of the main reasons so many people who’ve walked the halls of the Courthouse believe that building and operating a pre-release prison is a good idea is because the people who came before them thought it was a great idea and failed to get it done.

“Getting it done” is now the hill on which everyone in the future will die on trying to get this built.

However, the reason so many failed, as some see it, to get it done is a lack of money. And that’s a problem that still very much exists within Schuylkill County government. But at some point, three Commissioners are going to eventually vote to approve this idea and you’ll be the one left holding the bag to pay for it.

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  1. Val

    November 30, 2023 at 6:46 pm

    Ouch.. another “private prison”? It reminds of “kids for cash” scandal back in the days, except for adults… other than that, no comments

    • Canary Commenter

      November 30, 2023 at 11:44 pm

      This wouldn’t really be a private prison since the county is building and running it. But there would be an impetus to fill it up.

      • Val

        December 1, 2023 at 9:21 am

        But they don’t have money to build it. With some help of private companies the dream might come true.

        • Canary Commenter

          December 1, 2023 at 1:57 pm

          This is why they’ve been bragging about their credit rating with Moody’s. They’re ready to take on more debt.

          • Val

            December 1, 2023 at 3:26 pm

            Hey, the more prisons the merrier, according to Schuylkill commissioners:-( The “genius” plan is: let more illegal drugs in => get more young people to become addicted to drugs => build more prisons => PROFITS!

  2. Josie8862

    November 30, 2023 at 8:49 pm

    Just a thought here, but didn’t Judge Baldwin have money earmarked to pay for a prerelease center that was to be located in Mahanoy township ( I’m not sure if this is where it was) but I remember reading about it.

  3. James EISENHART Jr

    November 30, 2023 at 9:56 pm

    Well if Padora wasn’t giving JOBS away to his friends,(ask Dunkel) there might be money. As long as ROY HEIM and Bud Quandel don’t make any money on it. The two R boys spent $92,000 for those seats,they got that from the above and their PAC.

    Ask your self : I making $80,000 a year as a supervisor,why would I take almost 20,000 dollar PAYCUT? Ask Padora?

  4. Dragonsi

    November 30, 2023 at 11:13 pm

    I have 2 questions:

    1.) Why is January 2023’s amount blank? Technically, you only have 10 months of totals listed. The dollar amount seems to jump all over the place, month to month, especially from $45,600 to well over a quarter of a million dollars the very next month, for an increase of only 6 prisoners. But you do have to agree that the monthly totals are steadily increasing, and consistently above $100,000. You only have 10 months of totals listed, another 2 months could probably be in the range of $1,550,000 total easily. $2 Million doesn’t seem too far off the mark in that sense, especially with no rhyme or reason to the fluctuations month to month, with the year’s highest month close to $300,000.

    2.) Earlier in the article you said “Another $75,000 of that big budget adjustment is to cover expected wages and overtime payments to prison staff between the date this money was approved and the end of 2023. Now, keep that figure in mind for a little bit later here.”, but you never refer back to that dollar amount at all for the rest of the article, after re-reading it twice. Unless you were going to refer to what I just mentioned, the rising cost month to month, especially in the second half of 2023, which would definitely be a lot more than $75,000 from the date of the City Council meeting until December 31st?

    • Canary Commenter

      November 30, 2023 at 11:27 pm

      We just covered the last calendar year. This is the second time we’ve looked into this and each time, there was always a month in the year with a 0 payment. Presumably, the amount paid is the bill coming in from the other prison(s), which is why we include the average. The monthly totals are going up but are they going up because they want to prove a point? In our last analysis, the trend went similarly. There were low months and high months.
      Regarding the $75K and referring to that later, I’m not sure that was the reference for the future. Maybe got a little lost on that part in writing the article. Will go back and clean that up. Sorry about that. Nice catch!

      • Canary Commenter

        November 30, 2023 at 11:43 pm

        What doesn’t change is that they want to build a prison for people who probably don’t belong in prison and won’t gain any benefit from being in a prison setting. Drug abuse/addiction isn’t going to be solved by prison, or whatever they want to call it. Any place you are sent and can’t leave – at least not without permission – is a prison.

        There are already agencies in the county tasked with dealing with drug addiction/abuse. The county needs to start filtering these folks there to get real help, not punishment.

        And the most important factor here … they/we can’t afford another prison. It just doesn’t make financial sense. Buber said it was $2 million a few years ago. To come close to the cost of building now, it’s more than $2 million. If you have done any home projects in the last few years, you know how much building materials has gone up. Now factor that in with the increased cost of labor. The county is looking at at least $20 million to build a pre-release prison. Probably going to be a lot more than that. And then to staff it yearly? Yikes.

        • Val

          December 1, 2023 at 9:38 am

          Instead of dealing with drug addiction, would it be smarter to prevent the addiction? Like monitoring drug dealers, suppliers,etc.
          I assume the drugs do not grow on trees in Schuylkill County..

          • Canary Commenter

            December 1, 2023 at 1:58 pm

            Can’t confirm whether or not they grow on trees.

            And when you’re talking about what’s smarter … yes, it’s smarter to do that. But this is the government dealing with an issue. Smarter … government … does not compute.

      • Canary Commenter

        December 1, 2023 at 12:22 am

        Fixed that “hang on to that number” thing. It was a sentence that survived an edit and was in the wrong place. Thanks again for your attention.

  5. Chris

    December 2, 2023 at 7:04 am

    Josie8862 & Eisenhart are on to something. What happened to the $$ previously set aside for the pre-release center? Who will be awarded the construction contract(s)? Individual or PAC donations to Padora and Hetherington- small price to pay for millions to be made on the tail end. Disgusting!

    • Coalregion12

      December 3, 2023 at 11:19 am

      Next commissioner meeting that would be a great question!
      As always in politics follow the money.

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