COAL TOWNSHIP — John E. Wetzel, secretary of the state Department of Corrections, said he was very impressed with the ongoing construction of the new Northumberland County Prison and related facilities during a visit to the site Tuesday morning.
“You got a lot of building for $22 million,” Wetzel said. “It’s a pretty big bang for your buck here.”
He added, “You don’t see a place that is overbuilt. You don’t see a bunch of bells and whistles or frills. It’s a good, solid facility.”
Wetzel said he is pleased with the county taking a “campus” approach with the new facility by having the infrastructure of the criminal justice system on the same site.
He said the prison, which will have a capacity of 282 inmates (206 males and 76 females), is being built on a beautiful campus that not only will serve as a modern facility for inmates and staff, but also provide important related services such as a detox center.
He said having a detox site adjacent to the prison makes “so much sense.”
“If you just pop them (inmates) in here and don’t do anything to address their addiction or mental health, they are going to get back out and not only come back in, but commit more crimes,” he said. “So when you do something while they’re out here and make them less likely to do that, I call it crime prevention.”
Gaudenzia, a seven-county detox and drug rehabilitation center, plans to rent space in the coming months from the county in the former Northwestern Academy administration office.
Wetzel praised county commissioners for persevering with the massive project after fire destroyed the historic county prison on Second Street in Sunbury on Jan. 14, 2015. Although debate surfaced over moving the jail out of Sunbury, Wetzel said county officials can be proud of the new jail and its location.
The former Celotex plant in Sunbury was chosen as the original site for the county prison by the former county administration before current Republican Commissioners Sam Schiccatano and Richard Shoch approved the purchase of 168 acres of property for $6.5 million at the former Northwestern Academy in June 2016. Minority Commissioner Kym Best voted against the purchase.
The county owns 512 acres in the area of the prison.
Wetzel, who has toured 20 to 30 prisons under construction over the years, pointed out the significance of being able to house a significant number of female inmates at the new facility, which will save the county significant money since it won’t have to house them in other county or state prisons.
He noted the enhanced technology and security of the new facility.
Wetzel, who said he also liked the “day room design” at the prison that provides good sight lines for staff, said, “It’s a pretty impressive facility and it will be a great work environment. It’s a project that makes sense, that meets the needs, that doesn’t overspend. I think you’re in a good place here.”
Northumberland County President Judge Charles Saylor, who initially toured the site shortly after it was purchased by the county, was impressed with the progress upon returning Tuesday.
“I believe this will be one of the finest prison facilities in the state. There will be a lot more room for inmates and staff and technology and security measures will be improved,” he said. “The transformation from the old county prison (built in 1876) to the new facility is incredible.”
The prison, which is scheduled to receive its first inmates in early September, has six housing blocks, a receiving and discharge unit with a drive-in sally port, seven multi-offender holding cells, separate recreation areas for male and female inmates, 13 multi-purpose rooms, a medical screening area and a live-scan booking area.
The prison also has medical, dental and mental health treatment areas with five direct observation cells and two Children and Youth Services contact visitation rooms.
Inmates services at the facility will include medical care (PrimeCare), laundry, food service (CBM), commissary (Keefe), phone (IC Solutions), email (Secure Mail) and video visiting.
Inmate programs are scheduled to include education (GED/diploma and Food Safe), religious services, drug and alcohol, parents, anger management and re-entry.
Schiccatano said construction of the prison, which costs approximately $22.8 million, is about 85 percent complete. Following construction, a 30-day transition period will be held to train staff and make sure all equipment and security systems are operating properly.
The prison currently employs 40 full-time workers, including approximately 30 correctional officers.
Visit to youth academy
Prior to touring the prison with county and other state officials including Northumberland County Prison Warden Bruce Kovach, Chief Probation Officer Tim Heitzman, construction manager Keith Zellner and project manager Todd Rothermel, both of Alexander Construction, Wetzel visited the The Coal Township Youth Academy, a 32-bed staff secure treatment program operated by TrueCore near the prison site.
The tour was provided by TrueCore acting facility administrator Kristin Hanson, admissions director Ron Tanney, president and chief executive officer Steve Tomlin, chief operating officer Rodney Brockenbrough and two TrueCore students.
TrueCore, a for-profit juvenile treatment facility that opened in January, is utilizing buildings in the former Building Bridges section of Northwestern Academy.
Tanney said the facility, which serves 18 counties, currently has 13 students.
He said the average stay at the facility for students is four to six months. Tanney said students range in age from 13 to 19, with the average being 16.
Tanney said one cottage is currently open at the site with another one scheduled to open in the near future.
TrueCore, which operates more than 32 residential treatment programs for male and female youth in Florida, Texas, Tennessee and Pennsylvania, has 19 full-time employees at The Coal Township Youth Academy.