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A new layer of safety has been added at the Indiana County Jail to assure that no contraband or harmful materials get into the lockup from what might seem to be an otherwise safe channel: outside communications.

The county board of commissioners on Wednesday approved a contract between the county and Textbehind Inc., an inmate mail screening company that would provide its protective security service at no cost to the county.

No longer would jail workers take on the risk of being exposed to hazards when they screen the mail delivered for inmates.

Commissioner Chairman Michael Baker said the service has been endorsed by other areas that have tried it.

“We had Chris Reilly, a commissioner from York County, and they have implemented this at the York County Jail,” Baker said. “He said that since they started it, they have had zero contraband coming in. That’s what the goal is here.”

“I was skeptical at first because it seemed too good to be true, but it’s been properly vetted so I’m convinced,” Commissioner Sherene Hess said.

“You’ve probably seen in the news over the last year or so — a piece of mail comes into a prison facility and all of a sudden there’s white power and people are being injured,” Baker said. “This eliminates that completely. When someone sends mail to an inmate at our jail from here on out, they’re not going to get the original. Its going to go to a clearinghouse at Textbehind, they’re going to make facsimile copies and that’s what our inmates will be receiving.

“We want to continue to serve families who want to communicate with their inmate family members and friends but also protect our corrections folks. That’s very, very important to us.”

Textbehind operates by assessing fees to the families of inmates for processing inmates’ letters and email messages, a jail spokeswoman said.

In other business, the commissioners:

• Renewed an agreement now in place with Westmoreland County Prison that calls for housing Indiana County’s youthful offenders in the Greensburg lockup.

The contract carries a fee of $199 a day to house juveniles who are convicted as adults.

The Indiana County jail has similar agreements in place with Cambria County Jail and Abraxas. In recent years, the county has transferred only one juvenile offender to Ebensburg, a jail spokeswoman said.

The arrangements are necessary because the Indiana County jail isn’t built to have juveniles sequestered outside the sight and hearing of adult inmates.

• Announced a change of polling place for a northeastern Indiana County precinct beginning next month.

The commissioners and Chief Clerk Robin Maryai said that the Cherryhill Township 2 polling place, the Mahoning Hills Senior Center, is being replaced by the Clymer fire station in Clymer Borough.

“At the senior center, voters had to park on the street,” Maryai said. “The Clymer Fire Department came forward and asked if we would move the precinct to the fire station which has ample parking off the street. This is being done for safety reasons.”

Maryai said the county is studying parking situations at other polling places for possible future changes.

• Threw their support behind pending federal legislation that would create a zero tax credit program to provide relief to the coal mine site cleanup industry.

By their vote, the commissioners agreed to write to Pennsylvania’s congressmen and senators to ask for their support of the bill.

Hess said the endorsement comes at the request of Appalachian Region Independent Power Producers Association, a trade association representing coal refuse reclamation to energy industry.

The tax credits would enable mine site remediation companies to conduct their activities as cost-effectively as possible, Hess said.

“It’s a 10-year program beginning in 2019 that would provide a $12/ton credit for each ton of coal refuse removed through this program,” Hess said.

“We’ve spoken about this and it’s a worthy cause to support the removal of coal waste in a fashion that we would have a return and investment back in the county,” Commissioner Rod Ruddock said. “It’s amazing what we’ve spent on the cleanup of our streams. But we still have acid mine drainage and we’re working to fix it. We’re pleased that it’s going on, but it has to continue.”

Baker said a power generation plant in Ebensburg burns “bony pile” coal to produce electricity.

“They brought us photographs to show the difference and size of the coal piles in Lucerne and Ernest since they have begun this project, and what the impact is going to be on our land and streams,” Baker said. “That’s just one component of the things we’ve been working on. We’re asking DEP to install a pumping station that will help us to clean up Black Lick Creek.

“It’s a legacy from the past. These things were created at a time in our history when we had world wars being fought and we had to get stuff done. That generation did their job, and now it’s up to our generation to clean that up and make sure we get the environment as it should be for our legacy.”

Staff writer/Web Editor, The Indiana (Pa.) Gazette

Staff Writer/Web Editor

Chauncey Ross represents the Gazette at the Indiana Area and Homer-Center school boards and White Township, Center Township, Homer City and Burrell Township, and is something of an Open Records, Right to Know and Sunshine Law advocate in the newsroom.