Law enforcement opposing prison merger

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 10/29/21

Officials in Wayne and Pike counties are considering consolidating their prisons operations into one facility. But local law enforcement is pushing back.

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Law enforcement opposing prison merger

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TEXAS TOWNSHIP, PA — Officials in Wayne and Pike counties are considering consolidating their prisons operations into one facility. But local law enforcement is pushing back.

The Wayne Commissioners announced the possibility for merging last September, saying that inmate populations have fallen at both counties’ prisons.

“Both Wayne and Pike [counties], in keeping with the national trend, have significantly reduced their jail populations,” according to a press release. “Pike County prison’s population declined, on average, about 10 percent per year for the past six years. Wayne County prison’s average daily population was 104 in 2013, and in 2019, it was down to 53.”

The commissioners attribute falling numbers to a “change in the philosophy of incarceration” in favor of more rehabilitative approaches, like drug courts and Accelerated Rehabilitation Disposition [ARD] programs.
The two counties hired Sweeney Corrections Consulting to perform a feasibility study for the potential merger. According to Edward Sweeney’s report, Wayne and Pike’s facilities were built years ago with the expectation that both counties would see a growing number of residents over the years, and that inmate populations would follow that growth.

Instead, the opposite proved true. Census data shows that both counties’ overall populations have leveled out if not fallen between 2010 and 2020, paired with the inmate numbers dropping off significantly.

“From a financial perspective, a consolidation of the neighboring populations makes good sense for both counties,” Sweeney wrote in his report. “Wayne County’s annual budget expenditure would be reduced by about three million, and Pike’s revenue would be increased by about two million dollars.”

But the idea does not impress local law enforcement officials in Wayne County, who say that a merger would result in lost jobs, logistical issues for officers and potential public safety risks.

The PA State Troopers Association penned a letter opposing the “closure”—they make a point of referring to it as such and not as a “merger.” The letter argues that moving Wayne’s entire inmate population to Pike County would increase state troopers’ transportation times and spread the force even thinner than it already is.

It’s about a 10-minute drive from the state police station in Cherry Ridge to the correctional facility in Texas Township, compared to the 33-minute drive to get to Pike’s prison from the police station. Two troopers are required to transport an inmate, effectively cutting the county’s police presence in half during transports, according to the troopers association.

“In a county where police presence is scarce, the Wayne County prison ensures that PSP gets the most out of its limited resources, allowing for the maximum time to be provided to its citizens,” the letter reads. “The value of the Wayne County Prison to PSP Honesdale cannot be measured as a matter of convenience. It is more importantly measured in terms of safety.”

Employees at Wayne’s prison are opposing the merger as well. One employee told River Reporter that the county could save money by making the facility more efficient.

According to Pennsylvania Department of Corrections data, the average county prisons’ daily cost per inmate was $115.73 in 2020. But the Wayne County prison’s daily cost per inmate was somewhere between $240 to $260 that year.

“We have no management; good ideas fall on deaf ears,” the employee said. “We have officers walking through empty, closed units doing security checks; we have officers sitting on units with one to three—maybe to five—inmates at times… why can’t we [fix] our own operation to be more efficient?”

Wayne’s acting sheriff Chris Rosler sent a letter to the commissioners discussing the impact the move would have on his department. Transferring inmates to and from the courthouse is a major component of a sheriff’s deputies’ job.

“If we have to use Pike County jail, we will have to have our deputies leave between 6 and 7 a.m. so they can make the trip back in time,” Rosler wrote. “Also, we will run into a problem on where we will house them without having a holding cell here at the courthouse, and then we will have to feed them because they will miss lunchtime.”

Rosler concluded that if the county follows through, he would need to hire more deputies and a holding cell in the Wayne County Courthouse would need to be added.

Employment to corrections officers in Wayne County has been encouraged but not guaranteed in Pike County. In Sweeney’s report, he wrote that “The Wayne County staff should, to the greatest degree possible, be offered employment at Pike.”

However, according to an employee from Wayne’s facility, if the merger occurred, only a couple out of the 65-plus staff would seek employment at the Pike County prison, as a “last resort,” citing a reputation as a bad working environment and long commutes as reasons for the lack of interest.

The Wayne County Commissioners did not respond to a request for comment.

On Friday evening, October 29, members of local law enforcement agencies and their families turned out for a rally in front of the Wayne County Courthouse in Honesdale’s Central Park, demanding that local officials find alternatives to the merger.

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