Prison jobs up for review

HOLLIDAYSBURG – As the overtime problem at the Blair County Prison continues unabated, the head of the prison board said Thursday he will meet with the warden next week to review every position required to operate the facility.

Blair County Sheriff Mitchell Cooper, board chairman, said the first step will be to compile a list of every position and to determine if part-time workers can fill those positions that are vacant because of call-offs or other factors.

The study of staff needs is among the final tasks to be performed as part of an “action plan” developed three months ago to address some of the prison’s problems.

The review of the prison operations is coming at a time when the facility is operating at near capacity.

Warden Michael M. Johnston said the prison can hold 350 inmates, but earlier this week, the population rose to 351.

By Thursday morning, the population stood at 339 with 282 males and 57 females.

In the past couple of months, the prison board has designated an internal review officer, reassigned staff to make sure there is a supervisor on every shift, instituted disciplinary procedures for employees who are abusing call-offs and created two lieutenant positions that are close to being filled.

At Cooper’s urging, the board on Thursday adopted new security policies requiring photo identification of visitors, attorneys, vendors, contractors and volunteers who want admission to the prison.

Procedures also were adopted requiring employees, on a random basis, to be searched as they come to work.

The new security policy also states that employees must pass along information about contraband.

“Employees who are found to have been aware and did not tell the proper individuals of unauthorized items being brought in by other staff members … shall be subject to disciplinary action up to and including dismissal,” the new policy states.

The only discussion concerning the two policies was what sort of discipline might occur if an employee refuses to allow a random search when coming to work.

Rather than delaying adoption of the new policies, the board decided that it would provide an addendum to the employee search policy outlining the disciplinary procedure to be used.

The board is hoping to adopt the addendum in August.

Despite all the efforts to improve the prison’s operation, the large amounts of overtime remain a consistent thorn in the collective side of the board.

In the two pay periods in June, employee overtime was $20,556 and $18,590.

At the halfway point in the year, overtime totaled $122,587, or 81 percent of the amount budgeted.

Johnston did his own study to determine why overtime was necessary during a one-week period despite the use of 30 fill-in workers to supplement

the 68-member full-time staff.

The 30 fill-ins are permitted to work a combined 105 shifts each week, Johnston said.

But when considering the shifts during that week that needed to be filled due to vacations, call-offs, suspensions, military duty, training, worker’s compensation and officers assigned to other duties, the warden indicated he was at a 47-shift deficit, meaning overtime had to be paid to fill those shifts.

Staffing, according to Cooper, has been a “difficult issue to get at.”

Blair County Controller Richard Peo posed the question, “Do we need more people?”

Peo said hiring more full-time employees is a difficult decision because it means paying benefits as well as wages.

Cooper said his intent will be to prepare a report “everybody can understand.”

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.