Lack of room to put inmates and rising trends in certain criminal activities have put Lycoming County commissioners and court officials in what one former county district attorney characterized as being "between a rock and a hard space."
Consultants hired by the county have produced an option for a new $40 million, 538-bed combined facility that would house prison and Pre-Release Center inmates.
Capacity between the existing facilities is 392.
The sheriff’s new prisoner transport van awaits the end of a hearing recently outside of the county courthouse.
Commissioners have said they do not want to resort to building a new prison before all options have been exhausted.
The county has initiated plans for a day reporting center and increased supervised bail monitoring to help keep nonviolent offenders and those approaching the end of their sentences out of the prison.
Those tactics will be used for about two years and evaluated to see if they make a dent in the prison population, according to Commissioner Jeff C. Wheeland.
But if the consultant's estimates of increased need for prison space are accurate, the county won't have any choice but to build a new prison, Wheeland said.
That prison could be built on county-owned land near the pre-release center in Loyalsock Township just off Warrensville Road, as suggested by Carter Goble Lee, a Miami-based correctional planning company that performed the county's prison study.
A new, consolidated facility would eliminate duplication of systems and infrastructure that exists between the prison and pre-release center. The facilities are separated by about six miles.
Robert T. Goble, executive vice president of Carter Goble Lee, said a new prison should last 50 years.
He said that Lycoming County is at a crossroads regarding its prison housing situation.
"What I think we're seeing in the county is that they've made due with what they have and not expanded the existing facility. Lycoming County has reached the point where they can't squeeze much more out of it," Goble said.
At the same time, he lauded the county for its multiple programs such as drug treatment and driving under the influence courts and pre-release center for helping to keep people out of prison. Without those, he said, the county would have had problems much earlier.
Goble said it is very "rare" to see several programs like those which the county maintains.
"There are very few counties that have that," he said about the pre-release center. "The county has really done a lot of the things that counties need to do to minimize use of the county prison."
Although the county is experiencing an inmate housing problem now, Goble said that is not what he sees nationally.
"Prison crowding today has been kind of a downward trend in most jurisdictions," he said.
Pennsylvania and West Virginia seem to have the most issues with prison overcrowding, according to Goble. He cited Pennsylvania's push to move more state inmates to county prisons and West Virginia's strict laws as reasons.
"They have not built much," he said of West Virginia's prisons. "Some of their laws are pretty tough and causing people to be in their facilities."
He said his recommendation to Lycoming County commissioners - should a new prison be deemed necessary - is not to overbuild.
"Our idea was to build the smallest facility you can, not the biggest," Goble said.
Building with the idea of housing inmates from out of the area is not a good idea, he added.
"It's a much better strategy to look at your jurisdiction, not what we need for other jurisdictions," Goble said.
U.S. Rep. Thomas A. Marino, R-Cogan Station, a former Lycoming County district attorney and U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, said that as a resident and taxpayer of the area, he would support a new prison if it's needed.
"The next question is how are we going to pay for it?" he said.
Marino said that the county should consider contracting with a private firm that specializes in operating prisons if a new facility is built.
"There seems to be a move toward privatizing prisons," he said. "Government just doesn't seem to operate as (efficiently) as a private business."
He also said that county prisons should implement more programs to help offenders while they are incarcerated.
"We put them in prison and there are not programs to help them get rehabilitated. We need to have a prison/hospital atmosphere," Marino said. "You're not going to get off drugs in 28 days with these programs they have."