County lockup bleeding money

HUNTINGDON — In the past five years, Huntingdon County has paid about $4.5 million to other counties to house inmates, a cost that is bleeding the taxpayers at a rate of about $3,500 each day, according to budget numbers supplied by county officials.

“This is an ongoing problem,” Huntingdon County President Judge George Zanic said this week about the county’s aging jail that can hold at most 50 inmates.

Zanic pointed out that the issue goes beyond just the money paid to other counties as local and state police officers are spending time transporting inmates to and from other counties so they can appear at court in Huntingdon County.

It takes officers off the streets and causes more overtime.

No place for women

Zanic said the lack of women’s facilities — the women are housed elsewhere — led to the shutting down of work release because only males at the jail would have been eligible.

“No one has planned ahead in all the years I’ve been in Huntingdon County,” said the judge, who served as district attorney and before that a defense attorney in the county. “This issue has been ignored over and over again.”

In an email obtained by the Mirror from Zanic to the then-Huntingdon County’s board of commissioners in 2014, the judge pointed out his “increasing concern” about the inaction of several boards of commissioners when it comes to the jail.

“The fact that we do not have a facility for women and the fact we are spending $2,500 each day to house inmates out of county is an embarrassing failure on many levels,” the judge wrote to then-commissioners Gary O’Korn, Jeff Thomas and Dean Fluke.

The judge pointed out the “jail’s budgetary issues have a negative impact on every aspect of our county government,” and it affects the courts every day.

He added the condition of the jail is another aspect that needs to be addressed, and reminded the commissioners that while a committee was formed in 2012 to analyze the jail situation, as of 2014, all that was accomplished was the proposal to form another subcommittee to look at the problem.

“Despite the claims that ‘we are working on it,’ I believe the more appropriate phrase is ‘we are talking about it,'” Judge Zanic wrote. “There has been a lot of jail ‘talk,’ yet we continue to hemorrhage cash.”

Numbers climbing

A call to current county commissioners Scott Walls, Jeff Thomas and Mark Sather about the jail was not returned Friday, and a staff member at the board’s office said the three were tied up with a school field trip visit to the courthouse.

As of Friday, there were 98 county inmates, with 54 of those prisoners housed at jails in neighboring counties at an average cost of about $65 a day, according to Huntingdon County Jail Warden Duane Black.

“Every year, it gets tougher and tougher,” Black said.

Black started at the jail as a corrections officer in 1987 and noted there were only eight inmates in the jail. In fact, the jail actually housed inmates from other counties and brought revenue into the county, he said.

When the Church Street jail was built in 1979, it was designed to hold 25 inmates and over time, through doubling up of inmates and the use of cots, the jail can hold about 50.

That number doesn’t include any women because the jail isn’t equipped to have separate facilities for females, so the 25-30 women inmates the county can have at any one time must be sent elsewhere.

The number of inmates that need to be housed in Huntingdon County isn’t shrinking, either.

Huntingdon County Dis­trict Attorney David Smith said the jail situation doesn’t impact the job he has to do as district attorney, but he’s aware of the issues and said it is up to the commissioners to address them. Smith said it does impact budgets and policing and a decline in the number of inmate beds isn’t likely in the future.

“It really does need addressed,” Smith said.

Zanic said the jail issue makes sentencing difficult, and although he has to sentence according to the law, the jail’s status does limit sentencing options and has cost taxpayers millions of dollars — with that number climbing with each year of inaction.

In the first two months of 2019, Huntingdon County taxpayers have shelled out about $186,000 to neighboring counties to house its inmates.

At the current pace, by the end of the year, more than a million dollars will have flowed out of the county’s coffers and into the budgets of other county jails.

Conditions ‘deplorable’

The judge also stressed in the email that he wasn’t asking the commissioners to build a new jail, but only that they address the issue in­stead of ignoring it. It was a sentiment he repeated this week.

“I’ve never advocated building a new jail, but elementary math would show you the county could save money if someone would at least do an analysis on either the eliminating the jail altogether or building a new jail,” Judge Zanic said.

The county budgeted $1,795,943 for the jail in 2019 with an additional $723,386 budgeted for inmates to be housed out of the county. At the current pace, that amount will be about $1.1 million by the end of the year.

The conditions at the jail are also a problem, the judge said.

“The condition of our jail is deplorable,” he said. “I really feel bad for the guards that have to go to work there every day.”

Black said within the past two weeks, a plumbing issue forced jail employees to move inmates because toilets wouldn’t flush.

“Every time you turn around, something breaks,” Black said, adding that 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week operations such as jails take their toll on buildings and said he is forced to do what he can with the resources available.

With such a large number of inmates in other counties, it’s becoming very difficult, Black said.

If an inmate receives a county jail sentence, most likely that inmate will go to another county so the jail can keep inmates awaiting trial in Huntingdon to save money on transportation costs, Black said.

That only works to a certain point, and when there are too many inmates, re­gard­less of status, they get shipped out to other counties.

If there is a drug bust with 20, 30 or 40 people, it’s nearly impossible to manage, he said.

“As a taxpayer, it really makes me mad,” Black said. “As a warden, I do what I can with what I’ve got.”

Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-7458.

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