Pa. inmates hitting the road?

Betty Jean Thompson, who heads Pennsylvania's Citizens United to Rehabilitate Errants, says "it would be horrible" to move inmates to other states.
Betty Jean Thompson, who heads Pennsylvania's Citizens United to Rehabilitate Errants, says "it would be horrible" to move inmates to other states.
Posted: October 15, 2009

PENNSYLVANIA'S prison population is growing so fast and outstripping the system's capacity so extensively that officials are working on a plan to house some inmates farther from home - much farther.

Department of Corrections Secretary Jeffrey A. Beard in September sent letters to his counterparts in Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Oklahoma and Virginia asking if they'd be interested in making a buck by housing some of Pennsylvania's inmates - quickly drawing criticism from inmate advocates who say that those states are too far away.

In the letters, Beard states that the department is interested in obtaining housing for 1,000 to 1,500 inmates who are free of serious mental health or medical conditions.

"It is anticipated that the inmates transferred out of state would not require any special programming; only basic religious, recreational and similar perfunctory programs will be required," Beard wrote.

He is studying the six proposals that were submitted this month, with Michigan being the only one offering to take all 1,500 inmates, department press secretary Susan McNaughton said this week.

If any deals are struck, it would mark the first time Pennsylvania inmates will be housed by other states, McNaughton said.

Though Gov. Rendell approved Beard's solicitation of the proposals, any subsequent prisoner transfers would be made through an existing interstate corrections compact and, thus, would not need approval from the General Assembly, she said.

"It's important to remember that we are just seeking information at this time.

"No decisions have been made. But there's an interest or we would not have sent the letters," McNaughton said.

The per diem rate that the department would pay per inmate must be negotiated, she said.

Inmate advocates, however, said the state was moving too fast on this plan, which they labeled as hardly the best solution for an overcrowding problem that they acknowledge must be addressed.

The state's 27 prisons have enough combined capacity to house 43,357 inmates, but in actuality, they were home to 51,022 as of Sept. 30, according to department data.

Still, sending inmates so far from home would create another set of problems for them and their families, said inmate advocate Betty Jean Thompson, president of Pennsylvania's Citizens United to Rehabilitate Errants (CURE).

"It would be horrible," she said. "It's bad enough you are in prison - a place where you're not treated like a human being to begin with.

"To be sent to a place like Oklahoma, where you don't know anyone, where your family can't visit you, it would be like they are really in a tomb."

William DiMascio, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, said about half of the state's inmates are parole violators and drug users who have not committed violent crimes.

Many of them, he said, could be better supervised in community-based alternatives to incarceration, including house arrest, drug-treatment centers and day-reporting facilities.

"There's a downside to pushing people farther from their families," he said.

"People who continue to maintain contact with their families during incarceration tend not to commit crimes when they get out. They tend to live law-abiding lives."

Thompson said a better remedy would be for the state to house nonviolent offenders in highly supervised community correction facilities and private halfway houses - destinations now for those coming up for parole or who are already serving it.

Rules governing parole, which were tightened last year after a city police officer was gunned down by a recent parolee, should also be relaxed to move more nonviolent inmates out of prison cells, she said.

"It's really, really scary to think that Pennsylvania would allow such a thing to happen," Thompson said of the transfer plan.

"It's like we're in another country, like we're not in America."

McNaughton said those being considered for transfer out of state would be serving longer sentences, while community correction facilities are for those with little time left to serve.

Besides moving inmates across state lines, she said, the department this year has shipped 314 inmates to county jails, and it plans to increase that number to 900 in the coming months.

Since last year, 736 inmates have been housed in wooden modular housing units.

Further along, plans call for four 2,000-bed prisons to be built, with the first to open by 2011 and the others quickly to follow, McNaughton said.

Still, the department projects that the inmate population is expected to reach nearly 58,000 by Dec. 31, 2013.

"By the time those prisons are built, they will probably have enough inmates to fill them unless there is a change in policy," DiMascio predicted.

"That's what we need, not these temporary approaches."

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