COAL TOWNSHIP — State Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary John E. Wetzel has had a connection to Northumberland County’s unique prison situation since the day fire heavily damaged the former jail in Sunbury on Jan. 14, 2015.
“My first conversation when Gov. Wolf got in office was when your jail was on fire,” Wetzel said Tuesday following a tour of the new Northumberland County Prison under construction at the former Northwestern Academy campus.
It was Wolf’s first full day in office following his inauguration the day before.
“I called the governor. He said, ‘whatever they need,’” Wetzel recalled.
During Tuesday’s tour, Wetzel elaborated on how county and DOC personnel have been “partners” ever since on the new prison, including when the state opened space at SCI-Coal Township to house a majority of county inmates.
“We — our folks at (SCI) Coal Township in particular — this is kind of our project,” he said. “Our entire administration is invested.”
County Commissioners Rick Shoch, chairman, and Sam Schiccatano, who has been overseeing the prison project for the board, complimented Wetzel and his staff.
“We really appreciate his office and everything they’ve done since the beginning of the project,” Schiccatano said.
Noting the county’s change of plans from building on the former Celotex site in Sunbury to the Coal Township location, Shoch acknowledged the county made an abrupt turn.
“Thank you for sticking with us and all the help you’ve given us,” he told Wetzel. “The efficiencies (Wetzel) talked about (in regards to comprehensive rehabilitation offered at the new campus) came about because of the partnership we’ve had,” Shoch added, noting cooperation from the county courts and probation, too.
The DOC will again play a role in helping the county sometime after Labor Day when several hundred inmates are transferred to the new prison.
“Moving a couple hundred inmates is a complicated security matter. We have expertise in that, so we’ll certainly help out,” Wetzel said.
In fact, the state and county have another connection in this aspect, he noted. DOC Maj. Renee Foulds, in unit management at SCI-Coal, is also the project manager at SCI-Phoenix, a new facility in the Philadelphia area that will soon take in prisoners from SCI-Graterford. Foulds has been working since last August on the logistics of that move, and she’ll be around for the county move later this year.
“I told the commissioner he can borrow her whenever he wants,” Wetzel said, with Schiccatano quickly adding, “We already talked.”
Wetzel discussed other ways the state helps any county prison operation, but clarified, “I mean, we’re not writing any checks. We ain’t that nice,” he said to laughter.
As to the situation on the day the old prison burned, Wetzel would say later that it allowed him to miss the governor’s first cabinet meeting. “So thanks,” he joked.