Former commissioner: County prison still useful

A former Lycoming County commissioner who served on its board from 2000 to 2011 said the county doesn’t need a new prison and can make due with what it now has or even build a regional facility that could serve multiple counties while saving costs.

Rebecca A. Burke said she believes the Lycoming County Prison at 277 W. Third St. still is a viable facility.

“I don’t believe it is at the end of its useful life. I don’t think it’s functionally obsolete,” she said of the county prison that was opened in 1986. “And I don’t support building a new one.”

Burke said the prison – along with the county’s court system – has been doing things the right way, as evidenced by several County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania awards honoring Lycoming County for best practices in handling its prison housing needs.

“I think you have to look at what has changed. Obviously something has changed at the state level that perhaps is requiring incarceration,” she said, referring to mandatory minimum sentences.

Burke warned that building a new prison with a $40 million price tag would be “penny wise and pound foolish.”

She added that “$40 million goes a long way in housing inmates elsewhere when surrounding counties have built existing facilities with additional beds.”

Lycoming County has budgeted $600,000 this year to house prisoners in other facilities because of a lack of space. If that number remained consistent, the county could continue to house inmates elsewhere for more than 66 years, she said.

Another option could be to build a regional facility south of the existing prison along Route 15 across from the county landfill. Including other counties that have prison housing needs in a regional approach has the potential to save money, Burke said.

“The county owns land to do that,” she said.

A regional prison also could include county and district judges on site, she added.

“It certainly should not be discounted as a non-viable site,” Burke said of the county-owned land on Route 15. “There’s only so much the taxpayers can swallow.”

Jeff C. Wheeland, present chairman of the board of commissioners, said that housing county inmates at other facilities such as the Clinton County Correctional Facility – which is experiencing lower inmate populations – still is a possibility.

“Absolutely, it’s an option,” he said.

But with that comes an additional set of responsibilities including costs for fuel and sheriff department personnel.

“There’s other expenses in there, and of course, there’s other risks when you’re transporting prisoners. It’s literally a chess game,” Wheeland said about moving inmates between facilities to control population numbers.

“The balance between safety and the taxpayers’ dollar is going to rest on the county government. We, meaning the courts and the district attorney, must continue to seek alternatives to incarceration,” Wheeland said.

The commissioner said that proper parenting is the “ultimate solution.”

“Government is not the alternative to a set of loving parents,” he said. “It’s a rare occurrence to find one of our citizens caught up in the legal system or faced with incarceration that has had a set of dedicated parents and exposure to organized religion.”

Commissioner Tony Mussare said he would not vote for a new prison if the decision came up today. That’s because he disagrees on why some people are being sentenced to prison.

“I believe there is going to be a trend where the courts … need to put the bad people behind bars, not the people who cannot pay child support,” Mussare said. “I think it will happen, and it will happen soon.”