Deja vu — prison history repeating itself

In 1986, Lycoming County was anticipating the opening of a newly built prison in downtown Williamsport that would house 126 inmates, according to reports of the day in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette.

Almost 30 years later, the prison at 277 W. Third St. doesn’t have adequate room to house inmates, while the county spends hundreds of thousands of dollars to transport and house them in other counties.

The prison before that, now the site of a downtown nightclub, lasted much longer, having been in operation for 118 years.

Eighty-two inmates were first housed at the “new” prison when it opened on Jan. 20, 1986.

The struggle to find space for inmates in Lycoming County – and the costs associated with it – does not appear to be a new one.

Inmates were being shipped to other counties even while Lycoming County waited for its own prison to be completed. Inmate transfers and out-of-county housing cost an unbudgeted $300,000 in late 1985.

Hopes seemed to be high that year when some available space was planned to be rented to other counties.

The “county feels almost certain to experience periods when available cell space can be ‘rented’ to other counties that need room for their female inmates,” an article from the Dec. 5, 1985, Sun-Gazette said.

Today, the county’s female population makes up one of the fastest-growing segments in the prison.

In October 1984, while plans were being made for the new prison, the county transferred 23 inmates to other facilities.

David A. Desmond, then prison warden, said that “he and other county prison officials are doing everything possible to keep prisoner transfers to a minimum – including continued use of the supervised bail program for eligible inmates – but said the population problem will likely persist until the new prison is occupied,” the Sun-Gazette reported.

Sentiment from the bench in the mid-1980s – at least locally – appeared to be tough on offenders. A Jan. 2, 1986, Sun-Gazette article indicated that county judges were cracking down on those who ignored court orders and divorce and custody decrees.

The article states that Judge Clinton W. Smith credited his colleague, Judge Thomas C. Raup, “with initiating the ordering of long jail terms for repeat offenders on the domestic level as well as the criminal level.”

U.S. Rep. Thomas A. Marino, R-Cogan Station, was Lycoming County’s district attorney from 1992 to 2002. He said that the county had room to spare, and rented out to house federal inmates at the prison when he was in office.

That doesn’t mean there was a lack of crime, however.

Marino said drugs were and continue to be a major problem.

“It’s the same all over,” he said. “We were barely keeping a lid on the drug problem.”

Marino said that other offenses like driving under the influence charges, drugs and property crimes kept the doors at the prison swinging much like they do today.

“They keep telling us the crime rate is down – and I think they’re referring to the violent crimes – and I think that’s good, but I know all too well,” he said.

Marino also said the landlocked prison is not situated at an ideal spot.

“I thought that was a poor choice of where they decided to put that,” he said.