Luzerne County Manager C. David Pedri has set up a task force to address the “major concern” of prison overcrowding, he announced Tuesday.
“The population count directly effects the county budget and, most importantly, the safety and security of our correctional officers,” Pedri told the council in an email.
The prison, on Water Street in Wilkes-Barre, was designed to hold up to 505 inmates but typically has been at or above capacity in recent years. The inmate count was 535 Tuesday morning, not including eight female inmates housed in Clinton County due to a lack of space.
At $34.1 million a year, the prison system is the largest single department expense in the county’s $130.2 million general fund operating budget.
Part of the problem stems from a higher-than-average percentage of county prison inmates awaiting sentencing, as opposed to serving sentences. The percentage of county prison inmates awaiting trial has ranged from 60 to 80 percent since last November, court officials have said.
The county spends around $110 on each inmate per day.
Pedri said the task force will review all issues impacting the prison population and figure out “how to best maintain cost efficiency, security and the well-being of inmates.”
The following county representatives will serve on the task force: Correctional Services Division Head Mark Rockovich, Court Administrator Michael Shucosky, Public Defender Steven Greenwald, District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis, Probation Services Director Michael Vecchio, Conflict Counsel Attorney Administrator John Hakim and Tara Valet, deputy administrator of Luzerne-Wyoming Counties Mental Health and Developmental Services.
The task force will hold its first meeting Friday, Pedri said.
The council will be briefed on the group’s work at the Sept. 13 council meeting, he said.
County council members have been debating options to increase prison oversight amid recent controversies, including the July deaths of an inmate and corrections officer inside a prison elevator shaft and the filing of extortion charges against two employees in connection with work-release inmates.
Councilwoman Kathy Dobash has been pushing to form a prison advisory board, saying more public discussion is warranted. The advisory board could discuss complaints and concerns but would have no power to act beyond making recommendations.
Under the county’s customized home rule government, the county manager oversees prison operations and selects a correctional services division head who must be confirmed by the council.
Some council members and administrators have questioned the benefits of an advisory board. Instead, they advocated more public updates about the prison and internal discussions between county managers about prison population reduction options.