Malfunctioning Luzerne County prison security cameras to be addressed

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - | March 15th, 2016 8:00 am

Some workers at the Luzerne County prison in Wilkes-Barre have been complaining about malfunctioning security cameras at the Water Street facility — a problem the administration says it is addressing.

County Councilman Eugene Kelleher said Monday that 10 past and present prison employees have approached him unsolicited in recent weeks to discuss safety concerns, including an allegation that most of the security cameras are not working. The aging facility has more nooks and crannies than a modern prison because it is five stories.

“I’m really concerned about security at the prison for employees,” Kelleher said. “Some of these cameras take pictures in areas where you could have problems.”

A prison captain said Monday most of the cameras are working at this time, but parts are no longer available if one breaks down.

The camera system was installed in 2005 as part of several security improvements made after Hugo Selenski’s October 2003 escape, which made national news. The project involved about 50 interior and exterior cameras to both safeguard correctional workers and monitor their performance.

County acting Manager C. David Pedri said Monday the administration is actively working to replace cameras and complete other repairs at the prison with past-borrowed funding, earmarked by the county council in its 2016 capital plan.

The county council approved the prison’s request in August for $325,000 to upgrade security cameras. Prison officials said the video cameras are “outdated and have limited storage capacity.” Additional cameras also are needed, they said.

County engineer Larry Plesh said the new security camera project was combined with others in the capital plan and assigned to A & E Group, Wilkes-Barre, for design.

The other prison work, according to the capital plan:

• Shower renovations, $540,000. All 27 showers must be gutted and re-tiled to stop leaks.

• Door replacements, $120,000. New doors, walls and intercoms must be installed on both sides of the third floor for security reasons.

• Day room doors, $120,000. Additional doors are needed at six day rooms to provide another exit.

• Slider replacement, $110,000. Eleven mechanical door sliders are worn from heavy use.

• Control panel, $95,000. Control panels must be installed on the ground floor

• Lobby security, $75,000. A new secure entrance will be added for staff safety.

Plesh said his office made some modifications to A & E’s design plan in early January.

He expects the project will be publicly bid this spring.

“I’m sure once we find a contractor to do the work, the first priority will be security cameras,” Plesh said.

Plesh cautioned the work will take longer than a typical project — he estimated six months — because the prison must remain fully operational.

“The contractors can’t be in contact with the prisoners and they’re very overcrowded there,” he said.

The shower replacement project will provide an opportunity to install a mechanism causing the water to turn off after a set time, which will prevent wasted water, Plesh said.

Kelleher said the former and current employees he spoke to also disagreed with past decisions to stop the random drug testing of prison workers and cancel a canine program to detect drugs at the facility.

Deputy Warden James Larson recently said the random drug tests stopped several years ago under a prior administration when the prison budget “started getting tight,” but he said he supported restoring testing this year.

The issue came up due to recent felony charges filed by the FBI against county prison counselor Louis Elmy, alleging he was a “habitual drug user.” Elmy was charged with distribution and possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine and possessing a firearm while being a habitual drug user. He is on administrative leave without pay.

Former county Correctional Services Division Head J. Allen Nesbitt eliminated the canine program in 2014, based largely on an outside consultant’s recommendation it would save money. Other local police departments and the state Department of Corrections have agreed to provide canine assistance if the need arises, Nesbitt had said.

The county spent $11,054 in 2012 for the food, veterinary care and training of four dogs. The Fair Labor Standards Act also requires additional compensation for the K-9 officers, who must keep the dogs at their homes.

Replacement project to be bid out in the Spring

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.