Luzerne County officials are debating how to step up oversight of the county prison system in light of recent high-profile problems.
Amid ongoing struggles with rising costs, overcrowding and an increasingly violent inmate population, the county prison has been in the spotlight due to last month’s death of an inmate and guard and extortion charges filed against two employees this year.
County Councilwoman Kathy Dobash is pushing to form a prison advisory board, saying more public discussion is warranted on concerns and solutions.
“I still in my heart feel that this is something needed — maybe not forever but for awhile — especially with all the extreme issues we are dealing with right now,” Dobash said at Tuesday’s council work session.
Stephen A. Urban, a councilman and prior county commissioner, has criticized the county home rule government’s elimination of a prison board that oversaw prison staffing and operations before 2012. County commissioners, the district attorney, county controller, sheriff and a judge or judicial representative sat on the board and met at least once a month to publicly discuss staffing, safety concerns and fiscal issues.
Under the current structure, the county manager oversees prison operations and selects a correctional services division head who must be confirmed by the council.
Assistant county solicitor Shannon Crake said state law allows home rule counties to create a jail oversight board, but it can’t be done here without home rule charter amendments because the board would have hiring and management powers now assigned to the manager and council.
By law, the county controller, the council chair or his/her designee and three citizens must serve on the oversight board, Crake said.
An alternative would be a prison advisory board that could discuss complaints and concerns but would have no power to act beyond making recommendations, Crake said.
Councilwoman Eileen Sorokas said she is in favor of an advisory board.
Chairwoman Linda McClosky Houck disagreed and believes the solution is more public updates about the prison and all county divisions at council meetings.
County Manager C. David Pedri has agreed to her suggestion to start publicly presenting reports similar to those released at past prison board meetings on inmate population counts, infractions and the cost of meals and other expenses.
“I just don’t see a place for us in daily workings or daily operations of the correctional facility,” McClosky Houck said.
Councilman Eugene Kelleher said Correctional Services Division Head Mark Rockovich has been in the position only a little over a month. Additional meetings involving people who don’t intimately understand prison operations could slow his progress making needed changes, Kelleher said.
Rick Williams, another councilman, said he supports more communication between Rockovich, Pedri and others directly involved in the criminal system — judges, the district attorney, sheriff, public defender and probation. However, making those meetings public could “inhibit the sharing of ideas,” he said.
“While the public needs to be informed, and while we need to be informed, I think you need to have candid conversation with colleagues,” Williams told Rockovich.
Rockovich said he’s willing to publicly present and discuss prison matters but can’t divulge information that could jeopardize security.
Pedri said he’s open to suggestions from an advisory board but does not support creation of an oversight board that would remove the manager’s authority to hire and fire staff and set rules on prison protocol.
Urban said additional input is needed, particularly on reducing the expense of housing inmates awaiting sentencing, as opposed to serving sentences. The percentage of county prison inmates awaiting trial has ranged from 60 to 80 percent since last November, court officials have said.
The prison system costs $34.1 million a year — the largest single department expense in the county’s budget. Pedri cautioned the prison faces a potential $500,000 budgetary shortfall due to rising overtime and an inmate healthcare contract that wasn’t properly budgeted by the prior administration.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania has charged prison correctional officer John Stachokus and former prison counselor Louis Elmy with extortion, alleging they granted unauthorized leave to work-release inmates in exchange for cash and other items.
The county is awaiting an independent elevator expert inspection requested after an inmate and corrections officer fell down a prison elevator shaft to their deaths on July 18.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.