By Rick Hiduk
While drug-related crime and retail theft continue to challenge Wyoming County law enforcement officials, members of the county’s prison board acknowledged measurable improvements at the facility in recent months in their Nov. 5 meeting.
The overall inmate population has fallen to 60 men and seven women, leaving only two prisoners boarded at other facilities. That was a relief to board members, like County Commissioner Judy Mead who noted that the county used to make money by bringing prisoners into the facility. Chief Secretary William Gaylord noted that outsourcing inmates has cost the county about $150,000 this year.
Commissioner Tom Henry said that the reason that the final two inmates had not been brought back to the county was because there are numerous sentencings scheduled for next week. Judge Russell Shurtleff confirmed that 30 convicted criminals will be sentenced, which will likely result in a new increase in the prison population. Shurtleff also noted that 444 criminal cases had been processed in county courts so far this year. “If we keep going at the present rate, we will go over 500 cases for the year,” he stated. “that’s a lot.”
Lake Carey resident Trisha Thatcher, one of two citizens present at the meeting, expressed shock at the 400-plus cases that have moved through the county court system in 2013 and asked the board what some of the biggest issues are.
Henry noted that thefts at Walmart in Eaton Township continue to be a problem, and Commissioner Ron Williams said that drugs, especially heroin, continue to be an issue in the area. Henry suggested that the two elements might very well work hand-in-hand, as in theft of merchandise for resale or illegal returns to procure money for drugs.
Wyoming County Prison Warden Ken Repsher reported that board members attended a Criminal Justice Advisory Board (CJAB) meeting last month and learned about the possibilities of using electronic monitoring to alleviate jail overcrowding by low-level offenders who meet certain criteria. The Bradford County Correctional Facility began an “assisted bail program” employing electronic monitoring during the past few months.
A savings has been realized with the implementation of the third phase of vendor Trinity Project assuming the prison’s commissary program. Warden Ken Repsher related that food and clothing items purchased by prisoners now arrives sealed in plastic bags for each inmate. “It has cut down on the labor of having to sort out everything for the prisoners,” Repsher explained, adding that the inmates are happy with the selection the vendor provides. The next step is for Trinity Project to take over the kitchen at the jail.
“If everything goes as smoothly as it has so far, it should be really easy,” he remarked.
Money made on the commissary will help defray the cost of food at the prison, Henry said. “For the first time in 20 years, we will make money on the commissary.
Sheriff Ned Sherman updated the board on the need for a transport van. He provided information about a 2014 Ford E-350 van that would be purchased through the state’s COSTAR program that could be properly equipped for $39,983, just $17 under the projected cost for the vehicle. Among its features would be benches along each windowless side of the passenger compartment on which a total of 12 prisoners could be seated.
“All loading is done from the rear,” Sherman explained, noting that, currently, prisoners are walked to the courthouse from the prison in a chain.
“When it comes to transporting prisoners, we all hold our breath,” said Henry.
Moving shackled prisoners in bad weather is unpleasant for the inmates and prison personnel alike, Sherman acknowledged. “We won’t have to worry anymore about how we are going to get them here,” he stated.
Mead asked how soon the van could be acquired, and Sherman explained that it would likely be three to four months from the time that the vehicle is ordered. Mead recommended approving the purchase as soon as possible.