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Blair prison sees population shifts

Warden says numbers ‘a result of the world opening back up’

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Blair County’s prison population climbed to 280 this month, its highest level since November’s 309 inmates.

The population has since declined to 258 inmates as of Thursday, reports show.

“It’s a result of the world opening back up,” Warden Abbie Tate said in describing the noticeable changes in prison population levels as Blair County’s COVID-19 cases continue declining.

“We’ve been seeing our (inmate) numbers go up and down drastically,” Tate said, recalling a recent day when the population increased by 40 inmates. “Then it goes back down.”

When COVID-19 cases started surfacing in the community in March 2020, the prison was housing 377 inmates.

As concerns about the deadly virus grew, a combination of efforts were initiated to release and transfer inmates and to restrict admissions. By April 2020, the prison’s population was down to 245 inmates.

Even though the county prison now averages about 265 inmates, Tate said the county still needs to explore options for the facility’s future.

Before COVID-19’s outbreak, county prison board members spoke of visiting other prisons and collecting information that could be used to map out a future for the aged facility. Those options might have included the purchase of a building or the building of a new prison.

No matter whether the county prison holds 200 or 300 inmates, Tate said the building remains a hard place to work because of its “chopped up” layout that developed through additions and renovations. It’s also a difficult place to wire for communication devices because of its thick walls.

While the county has seen an increase in local juveniles facing charges of homicide and attempted homicide, most of them are being housed in state prisons with accommodations for young offenders.

The county prison, Tate said, doesn’t have enough space to keep them separated from other inmates or from their co-defendants at the request of prosecutors.

“None of us can control the kind of crimes being committed,” she said.

In the meantime, the prison board is hoping to see some ideas from L.R. Kimball Architects of Ebensburg that could suggest future plans for the 152-year-old Gothic-style structure. The jail was built in 1875 and 1876 based on historical records.

Tate said she and Deputy Warden James Eckard went over the prison floor plan with Kimball representatives who offered no prediction as to when they will generate information and recommendations.

Their work isn’t costing the county anything at this time, Controller A.C. Stickel told the county prison board. But the Kimball research could lead to additional work or research that will be at a cost to the county.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 814-946-7456.

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