Centre County Correctional Facility sees population growth from other counties, state

The Centre County Correctional Facility has added capacity to the prison to keep up with state demand.
The Centre County Correctional Facility has added capacity to the prison to keep up with state demand. CDT photo

When the Centre County Correctional Facility’s doors first opened, or slammed shut, depending on which side you were on, the capacity of the building was about 350 prisoners, but only half the building was in use.

Commissioners at the time planned the facility for the long haul, relying on projections that said they would need more space down the road.

Nine years later, the entire building is in use, but not all the prisoners are homegrown.

When Warden Richard Smith took the reins in 2012, the first thing he did was look at the building, which was built with more of the wall plates that mount bunks already embedded in the walls.

“I went through and added about fifty more beds,” he said.

At the time, the facility already had 150 empty bunks, but he said the less than $10,000 expenditure would pay for itself.

As of Friday, the prison’s population was 340 inmates. The numbers fluctuate day to day, but hover near that number, with about 240 of them being Centre County inmates, a 50 percent increase over the 160 that moved there in 2005. The county’s numbers are climbing steadily.

“The caseload continues to increase overall as the type of crime changes and becomes more challenging,” said Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller.

But the local population is only half the story. So where do the rest of the inmates come from, and why is Centre County housing them?

About half come from surrounding counties, other areas that are in the same position Centre County was until it replaced the old facility behind the Bellefonte courthouse, originally built for about 20 inmates and being pushed into service for many more while more than half the county prisoners were boarded in Clinton County.

On any given day, that might include a mix from Elk and Clearfield counties, with the majority from Huntingdon County, which has a capacity of about 50 at home. Last week, more than 35 Huntingdon prisoners were in Centre County’s facility. Some will come from even farther afield if necessary. The county recently played host to guests from Fayette County, which Smith said is a testament to how little available space there is in county jails between central Pennsylvania and the southwest part of the state.

The remaining prisoners were placed by the state.

They are technical parole violators, inmates who were released and committed infractions that violated their parole and were returned to state custody. According to Susan Bensinger, deputy press secretary of the state Department of Corrections, there are 824 housed in 16 county jails all over Pennsylvania.

The ones at Centre County, however, are what Smith calls “completers,” those who are done with their sentences and about to be released into transitional programs like halfway houses, and are only waiting for those next steps to be set up.

“I had made up to 70 beds available. If I told them we could take 150, we would probably have them within five days,” Smith said.

Bensinger said counties are providing a service to the state.

“Cooperation from the county jails is very important. As we look for ways to completely divert TPVs away from being housed in (a state prison) and try to keep them closer to home, being able to contract with county jails to use jail beds for these TPVs plays an important role,” she said.

County Administrator Tim Boyde said the inmates don’t receive treatment or anything else that costs the county more than room and board.

The state and out-of-county contract prisoners alike bring in $65 a day. That translates to about $2.5 million. Smith said that in food, clothing and staff time, the TPV inmates cost them about $566,000, making the remaining $1.8 million a revenue stream in the prison’s $8.6 million annual budget. But the impact might actually be more.

Smith said the efficiency of the jail lends itself to more prisoners reducing the cost per person for operation. In January, with the population at a 290 person average, the jail’s operation cost $81.59 per person per day. In March, with a 349 prisoner average, the cost came down to $67.90.

“I do try to run it like a business,” said Smith.

Commissioner Chris Exarchos, originally a critic of the construction of the facility before he joined the board, said he is happy to see the operation saving taxpayer money.

State Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Rush Township, was the $20 million project’s champion as a commissioner. He said he’s happy to see it living up to its original expectations.

“It’s pretty much what we envisioned ten years ago,” he said. “We also built it to be expandable knowing that’s where the population was headed.”

Lori Falce can be reached at 235-3910. Follow her on Twitter @LoriFalce.