HOLLIDAYSBURG - Blair County Prison Warden Michael M. Johnston hasn't had much to say during the past few months as the county's Prison Board wrestles with call-off problems, overtime costs and the many changes that are now taking place.
But Johnston has been paying attention to what is happening and at the last Prison Board meeting in May presented a statistical report, based on figures compiled by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, that shows Blair County's problems aren't really that different from those being experienced at jails throughout the state.
"I'm a statistical person," said Johnston.
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich / Blair?County Prison Warden Michael Johnston has been comparing statistics with other state prisons to evaluate Blair’s issues.
During his more than six years as warden, he has been known to pull together numerous reports to demonstrate problems or make a point.
In talking to wardens throughout the state, he has concluded, "Every county in the state has overtime."
Johnston, in an interview a week ago, preferred to
take the "glass-is-half-full approach" rather than dwell on the recent problems.
He said he could use more full-time officers. He also said that maybe Blair should consider constructing a new prison.
A "new" wing of the prison was opened 30 years ago, but, as he pointed out, county officials at that time never contemplated housing up to 350 inmates on a daily basis - the listed capacity of the present facility.
He showed how offices have been converted to holding cells and how a storage room and a bathroom have been remodeled to office space.
He pointed out also that nearby county prisons like Cambria and Centre have constructed new prisons that are able to charge the state and federal governments a daily fee to house inmates.
Cambria County last year made $2.7 million in income from housing outside inmates, while Centre County took in nearly $1.2 million. Blair County's most recent addition was the construction of a large section for female inmates. Blair houses female inmates in that 66-bed wing for Huntingdon and Elk counties, as well as Blair, and took in more than $300,000 in earnings last year.
Johnston noted that maybe Blair County, in a new facility, could provide space for outside inmates and use the present facility in Hollidaysburg for juvenile programs.
While Johnston was just speculating what could be done, his main concern now centers on meeting the needs faced by the prison at the moment and resolving the call-off problems, the need for fill-in workers and the growth of overtime.
In analyzing where the present Blair County Prison fits into the big picture, Johnston put together a report comparing last year's statistics in Blair with 37 other prisons in fourth-, fifth- and sixth-class counties.
The size of those prisons, like Cambria, a fourth-class county, Adams, a fifth-class county, and Clearfield, a-sixth-class county, represent a better comparison than trying to analyze Blair's statistics in comparison with large county prisons in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Johnston said.
Blair is a fifth-class county.
His report to the board showed that Blair County has one of the lower budgets, particularly when compared to the fourth- and fifth-class counties. The county spent $47.47-per-inmate daily, the fourth lowest cost in the state. Only Northumberland ($42.39), Schuylkill ($43.24), and Lebanon ($44.71), have lower daily costs.
Northumberland and Lebanon are fifth-class counties, while Schuylkill is a fourth-class county.
Many of the counties Johnston is using in his report have much larger staffs than Blair.
He used Adams, a fifth-class county, as an example. For instance, it had an average daily population in 2013 of 302 inmates (Blair's was 286 inmates), yet Adams had 120 full-time corrections officers, a treatment staff of 25 and a support staff of six.
In 2013, Blair had only 59 full-time corrections officers, nine part-time officers and 23 fill-in officers, who are limited in the number of hours they can work. Blair's treatment staff stood at eight and the support staff at two.
Blair this year transferred the nine part-time workers to full-time status, meaning Blair full-time staff is now 68, backed up by the 23 fill-ins.
In the past two months, the chairman of the Prison Board, Sheriff Mitchell Cooper, has presented and begun initiation of a reform program based on an evaluation of the prison by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
New call-off policies have gone into effect, and staff has been shuffled around.
Cooper said he and other members of the board are still working on the staffing problem to see if more full-time officers have to be hired or if a full contingent of 35 fill-in workers can cover the need when staff members take vacation, become ill or call off for other reasons.
The sheriff said his goal is to complete the list of reforms at the prison by July, and he intends to have staffing suggestions at that point.
Johnston explained why Blair and the other prisons in the state have overtime.
When an employee in a normal county office calls off sick or takes a day off, that position often remains vacant for the day. Nobody is called to fill in. Prisons have minimum staffing requirements, Johnston said.
Blair's prison, because it involves an old wing, a new wing and a wing for female inmates, has many blocks where inmates are housed, and each block must be staffed around the clock.
"If somebody calls off sick, he has to be replaced. The jail dictates to us the people we need to have," Johnston explained.
In addition, since he became warden, corrections officers are expected to transport inmates to the hospital, doctor's offices or Central Court. That usually means overtime.
Johnston's statistics also showed that, since he became warden, the county has budgeted less and less for overtime.
In 2007, the county budgeted $275,000 for overtime and only spent $261,000.
As overtime costs gradually dropped to a low of $87,000 in 2011, the county budgeted less and less for overtime.
After the low in 2011, the commissioners budgeted only $85,000 for overtime, but in 2012 overtime took a leap to $168,663, thus a cost overrun of $83,663 was reported.
So in 2013, the commissioners raised the overtime allocation to $100,000, but the county spent a whopping $312,708.
Cooper pointed out his review of prison expenditures; the call-off problem was primarily responsible for pushing the overtime costs up.
Despite higher overtime costs, call-offs and other problems at the prison, Johnston made the point that this year's budget of $4,963,491 was actually lower than actual expenditures of $5,005,323 last year.
Also, he emphasizes, Blair's budget of $4.9 million pales in comparison to budgets in Adams County ($9.6 million), Cambria ($9.1 million), Centre ($8.6 million) and Lycoming ($10.5 million).
Johnston thinks the prison may come in on budget this year despite overtime costs, although it is still too early to tell.
"I am on the side of the county. I do want to keep our overtime down. I do want to keep call-offs down. I speak with other wardens. They express the same issues we have experienced. This isn't anything new," Johnston said.
He said, "For my part, I feel we are doing pretty well in that respect (keeping down expenses). We are in good shape. I'm proud of that."