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Blair to resume inmate programs

Programs to help inmates at the Blair County Prison prepare for release have been nonexistent for the past year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but that is beginning to change, according to a deputy warden who addressed the Prison Board on Thursday.

Jay B. Whitsel said several programs that ceased when the county commissioners implemented COVID-19 restrictions February and March 2020 are once again starting up.

The effort began in late February when Intermediate Unit 8 initiated GED classes.

Four inmates have been enrolled in the men’s in-prison drug and alcohol program, which resumed Feb. 22, Whitsel stated.

On March 11, the Prison’s KidsFirst program began anew.

That program helps male and female inmates prepare to reconnect with their children, eventually leading to virtual visits.

Religious services began again April 11, and a pre-release program operated by Goodwill will begin today.

Another program that addresses concerns of inmates with special needs, known as PeerStar, will restart on April 26, according to Whitsel.

The report by Whitsel was good news, according to Blair County Controller A.C. Stickel, who chaired Thursday’s meeting.

He pointed out that the inmates like the programs, and he said they are needed because most of the inmates in the county facility are incarcerated for only a short period of time, which means they eventually will be released back into the community.

The shutdown of the programs for inmates has been “tough on everybody,” Stickel said.

Another effect of the COVID-19 restrictions has been a much-reduced prison population, according to the statistics released Thursday.

Prior to the pandemic, the inmate population was well over 300 inmates, but the inmate population as of Thursday stood at 245 — 201 males and 44 females. It was reported that 15 Blair County inmates are being held in other facilities.

The average monthly number of inmates beginning in January was 221, followed by 233 in February, 252 in March and 256 so far in April.

The highest inmate count in the past year occurred last November when the population averaged 309.

From March 9 to April 9 the prison booked 121 and released 122 inmates, according to statistics released Thursday.

Deputy Warden James Eckard reported that it “has been an effort” to maintain a full staff at the prison.

As of Thursday, there were six vacancies. The present contingent of corrections officers includes 89 full-time and 11 fill-ins, or 100 officers.

Eckard also reported that a computer system, Guardian RFID, that can track inmates throughout the prison, was activated last week.

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