Luzerne County Council discusses prison concerns in light of recent deaths

By Jennifer Learn-Andes -

In their first meeting since the July 18 death of a prison inmate and correctional officer, Luzerne County Council members held a moment of silence and briefly broached concerns about the Water Street structure where the two men crashed through an elevator door and fell 59 feet and 1 inch down an elevator shaft.

“This has been an especially trying week,” county Manager C. David Pedri told the council Tuesday night.

A criminal investigation concluded the fifth-floor elevator door at the prison immediately gave way at the base when inmate Timothy Darnell Gilliam Jr., 27, pulled correctional officer Kristopher D. Moules, 25, backwards and hit the door.

Pedri hired an expert to assess the cause of the malfunction and identify corrective action. He also publicly called for the revival of past discussions about building a new prison to replace the aging structure — a project estimated at $100 million several years ago. In response, several council members have questioned the feasibility of a new prison when the county faces about $351 million in debt repayments, a $9.4 million deficit and other fiscal challenges.

“We are literally at the drawing board stage. Let’s not kill this idea before it has a chance to hatch,” Pedri said Tuesday, stressing he is well aware of the county’s financial issues.

The administration will research grants, public-private partnerships and the possibility of generating revenue by renting unused beds to the state or other counties, he said.

Pedri said his interest in pursuing a new prison won’t cause him to ignore safety-related repairs at the current prison.

“There are extreme matters that we need to take care of in that place and will,” he said.

Councilwoman Kathy Dobash also proposed a new prison oversight committee, saying the administration could benefit from assistance because monitoring the facility is a “big job.” She said she will draft and present a plan at the council’s next meeting in August.

Her suggestion stems from Councilman Stephen A. Urban’s repeated complaints that less information about the prison system has been presented publicly since the county’s 2012 switch to a customized home rule government, which eliminated a county prison board that oversaw the facility and held monthly public meetings to discuss prison statistics and issues.

The prison discussion wrapped up at the urging of Councilman Eugene Kelleher, who said further talk of a new prison should be postponed out of respect to the victims’ grieving loved ones.

In other business, the county has signed up for the state’s gypsy moth spraying program in 2017, Pedri said.

A gypsy moth outbreak in spring 2015 caused a public outcry that convinced county officials to participate in the state spraying program for 2016. Private property owners must cover the cost of the spraying.

Pedri said he may ask the council to consider providing funding to reduce the burden on property owners seeking spraying but emphasized he is still reviewing options.

The county also must identify a new gypsy moth coordinator because county staff engineer Keri Skvarla, who filled that role, is wrapping up her county employment Wednesday to accept a position outside the area.

For now, property owners interested in the spraying must complete applications by the end of August. The applications will be posted this week at, Pedri said.

The state sprayed more than 3,000 acres of private property in 28 municipalities this year to ward off gypsy moth caterpillars that cause widespread defoliation.

Some property owners were interested but withdrew due to the cost.

The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which oversees the spraying, charged $55 per acre and required the spraying of a 500-foot buffer around each residence.

During a council legislative committee before Tuesday’s council meeting, Skvarla said the state has reduced the charge for its spraying in 2017 to $50 per acre, although the buffer zone requirement remains.

The council also voted Tuesday to again extend the lease on District Judge Thomas Malloy’s office on North Sherman Street in Wilkes-Barre.

County officials decided to house the offices of both Wilkes-Barre district judges — Malloy and Richard Cronauer — in the same building at 100 Hazle St. currently occupied by Cronauer.

The administration asked the council in April to extend the Sherman Street lease through July 31 due to delays obtaining state approval for the move and preparing the new space. The Sherman Street extension increased the county’s monthly rental from $7,887 to $8,873.

Another extension through through Aug. 31 is needed, the administration argued, because the state Supreme Court did not grant permission for the offices to be located together until July 12. The additional month will cost $8,873.

Pedri said the office consolidation will save the county an estimated $7,000 per year.

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.

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