Blair prison nearing capacity

HOLLIDAYSBURG – Recent drug arrests have pushed the population of the Blair County Prison to near capacity, according to Blair County District Attorney Richard A. Consiglio.

Figures produced Thursday by Warden Michael M. Johnston showed that the population was 340 inmates, including 276 men and 64 women.

Johnston said Thursday that the population had actually dropped from 343 inmates on Tuesday.

He said the prison takes in six to seven inmates a day and releases about the same number.

But when the prison board was asked why the population was rising – up 21 from its May meeting – Consiglio concisely answered, “Drug arrests.”

Police rounded up of more than 20 suspected dealers about three weeks ago followed by several smaller busts, including four dealers last weekend.

The Blair County Prison lists its capacity at 350, but when the number of inmates gets into the 340 range, the facility often is forced to house some people in the gymnasium. Such is the case now.

The number of inmates in the county prison has been rising slowly throughout the year. In January a snapshot showed the number of inmates at 273.

Blair is housing 11 inmates for other counties but has four Blair inmates being housed in Bedford and Clearfield counties.

The jump in inmates is coming at a time when the prison board is grappling with high overtime costs and a continuing number of unscheduled days off by officers.

Those issues also were the subject of discussion on Wednesday.

Tim Miller, union representative for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the union is willing to discuss solutions to the problems faced by the prison board.

He pointed out that not everybody who is calling off work is a member of the union and that many of the call-offs, such as requests under the Family Medical Leave Act and vacation, are legitimate days off.

Miller said he wants to get the issues out in the open because the consistent talk about overtime and call-offs is putting the union’s corrections officers in a bad light in the community and is hurting officer morale.

He said he requested a meeting with prison board members, but no members showed. Instead the county was represented by attorney Dave Andrews, who represents the county in labor negotiations, and Katherine Swigart, the human resources director.

He said the union wants to work together with the board.

Prison board chairman, Sheriff Mitchell Cooper, said he will take Miller’s comments “under advisement.”

Meanwhile, Cooper reported on the continuing efforts to make reforms at the prison, stemming from the review conducted earlier this year by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

The lobby where visitors enter the prison now has an officer and a metal detector, Cooper reported. The metal detector was installed by Markl Supply of Pittsburgh.

The warden said he has interviewed 10 applicants for a new lieutenant’s position that will assure a representative of management is on duty for all shifts.

And the warden is hiring 35 part-time fill-in workers. Johnston reported Thursday that 31 fill-in officers have either been hired or are in training.

The fill-ins will be called for duty to supplement the staff of 68 full-time officers.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.