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Empty Bars

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Pennsylvania's prison population has increased by almost 800 percent in the past four decades. In a bid to relieve overcrowding, the Department of Corrections has sent 2,100 prisoners to facilities in Virginia and Michigan, and it plans to build four new prisons, at a cost of $1 billion, by 2013.

It would be hard to overstate the problem. But some say the DOC is trying.

Two veteran corrections officers, in fact, say prison officials are fudging the books at older prisons like SCI-Pittsburgh, understating their capacity and making overcrowding statistics look worse.

Dave Mandella is the vice president of the union representing corrections officers at SCI-Pittsburgh. He says nearly 700 additional inmates could be housed there.

"They're taking our inmates ... and sending them out of state when they don't need to," Mandella says.

Once known as Western Penitentiary, Pittsburgh's state prison sits along the northern bank of the Ohio River, just southwest of Brighton Heights. The prison closed in January 2005, but reopened in May 2007 -- at least partly. The facility contains six housing blocks, each of which can hold between 300 and 400 inmates. But Mandella says one of these blocks, and portions of three others, are currently not being used.

Russ Ray, a 16-year veteran corrections officer who heads the union local, says the DOC used the empty block for riot-training exercises years ago and never refurbished it.

"They blew it up," he says. "And now instead of making repairs, they're leaving it" to languish.

But Carol Scire, the superintendent's assistant at SCI-Pittsburgh, says that -- far from having room to spare -- the facility houses nearly 200 more inmates than it should.

Scire argues that any "empty space" at the prison is used for offices and storage, while some empty space "may serve as a contingency measure for things like inmate separation or housing for other state prisons, should an emergency need arise." Such a need could be a prison riot, similar to one that destroyed much of the state prison in Camp Hill in 1989. Prisoners there had to be transferred elsewhere.

Scire says SCI-Pittsburgh is keeping 150 beds on stand-by should such an emergency arise again. But "The facility is full," she wrote in an e-mail to City Paper: Its official capacity is 1,500 inmates, but it currently holds 1,641 inmates.

However, City Paper obtained a "daily bed availability report" used by prison officials to track the number of inmates in each facility. Dated Aug. 19, the report indicates that SCI-Pittsburgh has 392 available beds.

When presented with the report via e-mail, Scire reiterated that 150 beds were intended to serve as "contingency space"; any remaining space, she said, is "unusable" because of damage done during the riot-training exercises. Scire declined to clarify why the reports would list beds as "available" if they could not be used.

Mandella and Ray, meanwhile, say the bed-availability count understates the space that could be used. The numbers don't factor in space in the prison's completely empty cellblock, they say, or empty "tiers" in other blocks.

"When they tell you they're overcrowded, they're blowing smoke up your ass," Mandella says. "They could save state money and keep jobs in Pittsburgh if they put some work into the prison. But they don't want to do that. They want to build these new prisons and close the old ones."

 

At first, it might be hard to understand why anyone would want to bring more prisoners to Pittsburgh. But there are jobs at stake, many of which would be represented by Ray and Mandella's union.

"When you take inmates out of state, you're also taking jobs out of state," Mandella says.

The state's new Benner Township prison, for example, is expected to bring 600 jobs overseeing 2,000 inmates. DOC salaries range anywhere from $30,000 per year to more than $100,000 per year, and most prison jobs require only a high school diploma.

And then there are the inmates to consider.

Most of the state's criminal convictions occur in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, says Dr. James P. Bond, a retired oncologist and a former professor at the University of Pennsylvania who advocates for prisoners' rights as a member of the Pennsylvania Prison Society. But because most prisons are built in rural areas far from either city, he says, "The average inmate is housed more than a hundred miles from their family." The state's stopgap measure of shipping prisoners out of state would make things worse: Noting that inmates' families are often poor, with limited access to transportation, Bond calls it "inhumane" that "we're sending [2,100] inmates off to these other states."

But for the DOC, doing so could represent a substantial savings.

The average cost of incarcerating inmates in Pennsylvania is $85.22 per day, according to official DOC numbers. Officials say transferring inmates out of state saves money -- the state pays just $62 per day to house an inmate in Michigan or Virginia.

In any case, Scire says, SCI-Pittsburgh is no longer suitable for the most serious offenders. The facility "now houses minimum- to lower-medium-security inmates who require alcohol- and other drug-treatment programming," she says.

Mandella takes issue with that assessment.

"When I started here, the prison held 2,400 inmates and most of them were real bad guys," he says. "The problem isn't with the facility. It's with the way DOC says they want to run the facility."

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