Blair County Prison board approves sweeping changes

HOLLIDAYSBURG – The Blair County Prison Board on Thursday unanimously approved a plan to make sweeping reforms in the way the prison operates, including the appointment of an internal affairs officer and recommendations to recruit, retain and advance female and minority employees.

The action plan came after months of self-evaluation by prison authorities and board members and a thorough review of prison operations by a team of evaluators from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

Sheriff Mitchell Cooper, prison board chairman, released 13 recommendations from DOC and its secretary, John Wetzel, and then presented an action plan to address each of the points.

Cooper said he is serious about seeing the plan implemented within 90 days.

He, other board members and authorities such as Warden Michael M. Johnston, don’t intend to dawdle, Cooper said.

The 90-day deadline does not mean it will take 90 days, he said.

One of the questions is whether the changes will be expensive, but before that can be answered, the warden, Blair Human Resources Director Katherine Swigart and the prison board operations committee, which includes Cooper and Commissioners Terry Tomassetti and Diane Meling, will review present staffing and determine if recommended position changes can be filled from within or if new positions must be created.

The prison board in the past few months has complained about excessive overtime, large numbers of daily call-offs and dissension among the corrections officers.

What to do about the problems, particularly the personnel issues, led board member Judge Daniel J. Milliron to contact Wetzel, who sent a five-member team to Blair County to review how the local prison operations.

The DOC recommended the appointment of an internal affairs officer with a law enforcement background to investigate instances of misconduct at the prison.

Cooper said the creation of the position would be a priority.

He said the officer would report to the board, not the warden, and would have the power to investigate prison employees, including the warden.

The DOC recommended this officer be based outside the prison but also have an internal office.

The action plan states, “An evaluation shall be made to determine if this position can be created with due consideration of fiscal restraints.”

Another priority will be to have more supervisory staff available during the evening and night shifts and on weekends.

Cooper said a strong presence of supervisory personnel is a way to resolve conflicts among line officers working in the off-hour shifts.

The approved plan calls for a second officer to be assigned to the main control center and for the return of a captain in Central Booking to his previous duties. Possibly a reassignment of a lieutenant to Central Booking under supervision of the captain would be the way to handle the situation , according to the plan.

The DOC report report concluded, “There appears to be a reluctance on the part of female officers to file complaints.”

The state advised to county to be “proactive” on this issue, advising female officers of their equal opportunity rights and ways they can file complaints.

The board’s plan asks Swigart to “review and make recommendations to the Blair County Prison Board on recruitment, retention and advancement of female and minority officers.”

Many of the recommendations have to do with safety at the prison, noting that metal detectors and pat searches be performed on family members and friends of inmates, as well as employees, vendors, outside contractors and professional visitors who will be in contact with inmates.

Another safety measure would be to have an officer at the main entrance lobby to identify, search and direct outside visitors. Inmates being escorted from the restricted housing unit are to be in leg irons and handcuffed to a waist belt or handcuffed behind their back, and two officers should be involved in escorting RHU inmates when utilizing an elevator, it was stated.

Log books are to be kept in each housing unit and are to be signed by any staff management person visiting the unit.

The warden and deputy warden are to visit each housing unit once a week and other areas of the prison once a month.

Cooper was asked if he had anything to say about the work that went into the action plan, but he replied that developing the plan is only a start.

“This is just the beginning. We think the items listed in the action plan will have a positive impact if we get them accomplished in a timely fashion,” he said.

“The important thing is we are all working on the same page here,” he said.

Johnston has been cooperative and has had input, he said.

Other members of the board said they would let Cooper sum up what is going to happen at the prison in the next few weeks.

District Attorney Richard A. Consiglio, and Judge Milliron said Cooper was the person to explain the plan, and Controller Richard A. Peo said of Cooper, “He is talking for me.”

He said Cooper has taken the lead in implementing the plan.

Union leaders have been attending the prison board meetings the past few months, and on Thursday staff representative Timothy Miller of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Duncansville was present when the action plan was passed.

Miller reserved comment until he had a chance to read the plan, which he said he was going to do Thursday night.

Cooper in the last month has met with employees at the prison, and he stated, “I was impressed with their responsibilities.”

He believes the action plans addresses any concerns expressed by the corrections officers.