Blair prison’s future explored

HOLLIDAYSBURG — A four-member committee has been formed to take the lead in exploring a future for the aged Blair County Prison.

Controller A.C. Stickel, who became prison board chairman in January, will be on the prison expansion committee, a group assigned to explore all options for the prison’s future where crowded conditions have been the rule.

“I know we need a larger facility,” Stickel said. “But should it be taller? Wider? Should it be new? Nothing will be off the table.”

In addition to Stickel, Warden Abbie Tate, Commissioner Amy Webster and President Judge Elizabeth Doyle or the judge’s appointee will make up the committee.

Stickel said he envisions the group meeting on a monthly basis to explore options. He also expects the group will visit other prisons and create sub-committees with additional members.

It also expects to rely on the state department of corrections for input.

“And the public too,” Stickel said. “This is a project where it will be vital to keep the public informed.”

Tate said she welcomes the pursuit.

“I am happy that the county has taken the step of appointing a committee to take a look at all our options for the prison,” Tate said. “It’s well overdue.”

Since becoming prison warden in June 2018, Tate has initiated improvements to make the facility safer for inmates and staff. But she also has acknowledged that she and her staff may be running out of ideas.

Stickel said the prison board members, who met Thursday, supported the committee’s creation.

In a document distributed to the prison board, Stickel reported that the county’s prison, built in 1868 and finished in 1869, is the fifth oldest prison in the state, based on state Department of Corrections’ records.

Before the prison undertook its largest expansion in 1983, Mirror records indicate that it was housing about 100 inmates a day and paying neighboring counties to house 20 to 30 more in their prisons. After the addition, the prison population continued to grow, leading to a smaller addition and interior renovations, which created more housing space.

The prison now houses about 350 inmates a day, although its population was reported at 377 on May 16.

While the prison expansion committee has no specific timetable, Stickel said he would like to see its efforts develop during the four-year term of current county commissioners, Webster, Bruce Erb and Laura Burke, who took office in January.

If a plan develops, then the committee will be in a position, Stickel said, to work with current commissioners on financial arrangements that could be acceptable to the county and its taxpayers.

“We’re not going to be looking to create a Taj Mahal or a prison with a state-of-the-art weight room,” Stickel said. “But we are going to be looking at something, hopefully something that’s efficient, to address the conditions in our county prison.”