Prompted by an increase in female inmates, Luzerne County officials are revisiting the possibility of using the former detention center property in Wilkes-Barre to house women.
But unlike two past rejected proposals to refurbish the vacant three-story center for women, the administration is looking into tearing down the structure and constructing a modular facility.
County Manager C. David Pedri discussed the idea during this week’s county council real estate committee session, saying the administration will draft a proposed plan for council’s consideration if funding eventually becomes available.
Demolishing the structure would cost an estimated $200,000 to $400,000, officials said. Prison representatives have estimated it would cost $3 million to build a modular facility housing 100 to 125 women, but Pedri said more analysis is needed for firm cost estimates.
A new female facility also could generate revenue because it’s likely other counties in the same predicament would pay to house their inmates here if the county has unoccupied beds, Pedri told the committee. The county could charge $75 to $80 per inmate per day, prison representatives have said.
Women are housed on a floor of the Water Street prison in Wilkes-Barre that holds up to 96, but the county has been averaging about 108 females, said Correctional Services Division Head Mark Rockovich. They can’t be moved to another prison floor or to the nearby minimum offenders building on Reichard Street because women must be segregated.
The number of female inmates is rising here and nationally, largely due to the opioid epidemic, prison officials said.
During his budget presentation last month, Rockovich told council he was forced to send 20 female inmates to Clinton County at $70 each per day due to overcrowding. Nineteen women were lodged elsewhere Wednesday, he said.
Options for the detention site have been debated periodically since the county stopped sending youths there in 2002.
Located along River Street atop a hill overlooking the prison, the detention center was built in 1937 as a women’s prison but later reprogrammed to house juveniles awaiting adjudication.
Prior prison heads had unsuccessfully pushed for the investment of millions of dollars — the high estimate was $10 million — to refurbish the detention center for females in 2003 and 2014.
Last year, a council majority rejected local businessman Jim Casey’s offer to buy the building for $20,000 to create a long-term residential program for recovering female addicts.
Councilman Eugene Kelleher, who serves on the real estate committee, has repeatedly argued the property should not be sold due to its proximity to the prison.
Balls and other objects — some packed with drugs — have been hurled from the detention property to the prison yard below at times along with rocks and arrows intended to injure corrections officers, officials have said. Due to past budget cuts, the prison no longer has canines to search the yard for drugs before inmates are permitted access.
Demolition and modular construction would be cheaper than remodeling the facility because most of the copper plumbing was stolen, sewer lines below the building have deteriorated, the kitchen is gone and the electrical and fire safety systems no longer meet code requirements, officials told the committee.
Councilwoman Jane Walsh Waitkus, who chairs the real estate committee, said this week she supports demolishing the structure and keeping the land for female inmate housing if funds can be identified because it would meet a pressing need and eliminate security concerns.
Rockovich said Wednesday extensive research must be completed before council considers the expenditure because inmate population estimates and demand for space from other counties are not guaranteed. Staffing also must be factored in. He has estimated 18 correctional officers would be needed to staff a new 120-bed site.
In addition to studying a new female-housing building, the administration is researching what it would cost to make the current structure fit for occupation and the security measures — such as fencing and cameras — needed to safeguard the prison if the site is sold or kept.
Councilman Rick Williams asked Rockovich why the female inmate population is rising.
Approximately 40 percent of the women are charged with drug possession or sales, Rockovich said. Specifics of the other 60 percent vary, but many involve theft to pay for drugs.
“Some people are on 30 to 40 bags of heroin a day,” he said.
Citizen Brian Shiner urged council this week to move $2 million from an $11.6 million windfall into the capital fund and earmark it for demolition of the detention center and construction of a women’s facility.
“I think that’s good money spent well,” Shiner said.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.