Low-Level Offenders New Focus of Prison Overcrowding

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Participants in the April 17 meeting of the Wyoming County Prison Board included (clockwise from left) Atty. Paul Litwin; commissioners Judy Mead, Tom Henry and Ron Williams; Chief Clerk Bill Gaylord; District Attorney Jeff Mitchell, Sheriff Ned Sherman, Warden Ken Repsher, Judge Russell Shurtleff and (not pictured) Atty. Steve Franko.

Photos and Story by Rick Hiduk

(Also published in the Rocket-Courier)

While inmate outsourcing in Wyoming County is nowhere near the excessive levels reached in 2016 and 2017, it is again on the rise, and a problem reported on Tuesday has officials vexed but committed to a solution. Individuals recently arrested on summary offenses have been held at the Wyoming County Prison in lieu of having a suitable “home plan.” Commissioner Tom Henry said that he was aware of three or four people currently in this situation via correspondence from the jail.

These are people who would not normally be incarcerated,” said public defender Atty. Steve Franko at the April 17 meeting of the Wyoming County Prison Board. He cited a lack of available resources in the area such as transitional housing or even homeless shelters. A planned facility in Susquehanna County to be shared with Wyoming County is not yet open, and shelters in Luzerne and Lackawanna County have little or no room.

Though no details were given, summary offenses can include disorderly conduct, harassment, public intoxication and underage drinking.

Franko suggested that it is difficult for someone to complete a home plan if there are no friends or family willing to take them in under the conditions set forth by the courts. Sometimes the families are tired of dealing with it, Warden Ken Repsher remarked, “and you can’t parole someone who has no place to go.” Sometimes, the prisoner doesn’t want to go back home, Franko added.

This is not the first time that the county has been faced with this problem, according to Judge Russell Shurtleff. A solution used more than once in the past involved authorities purchasing bus tickets for summary offenders and sending them back to their home towns. Henry was under the impression that those currently in question wouldn’t be eligible for such an arrangement.

Shurtleff promised to look at the individual cases to see if there might be a quicker solution for anyone unnecessarily caught up in the system, but cautioned Henry that “every inmate has their own story, and you might not be getting all of it.”

Henry has made calls to some local hotels, managers of which would be willing to house some low-level offenders at a reduced rate for the county, though Franko questioned how such an arrangement would be structured. Nonetheless, they agreed, $30 per evening at a hotel is much cheaper for the county than the average $240 per day prison stay.

Henry and Commissioner Judy Mead were slated to attend a lunch meeting on Wednesday of the local ministerium, members of which have asked for ways in which they could help the community. Henry was hopeful that, between the prison board, law enforcement authorities and church leaders, a short term fix could be found that might lead to a long term solution.

In his monthly report, Repsher noted that about 44 percent of those currently incarcerated have been sentenced, which is an increase of about 100 percent from recent years. There are currently eight inmates housed in Susquehanna County, with the cost for outsourcing jumping from $3,850 in January to $17,765 in February. There were 41 new commitments during the same time period and 38 prisoners released.

Henry expressed his dissatisfaction with Future Flooring, the company contracted to renovate the showers at the jail. Though they were highly recommended by other counties, their work at the facility in Tunkhannock has been routinely under par. The leaks reported last month have not been fixed, and Henry said that the county will hold the remaining 50 percent of the payment until the company responds and addresses the issues.

Repsher’s request to hire a full-time corrections office to replace someone who left in January was granted by the board. The best news Repsher had for those in attendance, however, is that the Wyoming County Prison recently passed an inspection by the State Department of Corrections and is now good through 2020. He credited the successful inspection to consistent practices by his staff.

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