Indiana, PA - Indiana County

Prison population plan faces critics

on February 13, 2012 2:30 AM

HARRISBURG (AP) -- Gov. Tom Corbett's proposal for the biggest reduction in the prison population in Pennsylvania history is getting a cool reception from state prison guards.

Corrections officials say the reduction of more than 2,500 inmates will come from increased efficiency in the parole process. Secretary of Corrections John Wertzel says it can take up to 100 days for an inmate to be released after being granted parole.

But Roy Pinto, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, says the projected reductions aren't going to happen.

"The only way it can be done is they're going to have to cut people loose that shouldn't be cut loose," he told The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News.

Michael Potteiger, chairman of the state parole board, which is independent from the corrections department, said the board doesn't make decisions based on prison populations.

"We're not changing any criteria for a person to be paroled," said Potteiger. "Getting people who've already been paroled out the door sooner isn't a safety risk."

Officials point to clogs in the system such as the delay of several months in confirming two parole board members. During that period, the number of inmates grew from 51,356 in July to a record 51,638 in December -- and those 282 additional inmates cost the state more than $750,000 a month.

Wetzel says he can fix other clogs in the system, getting people who are eligible into an interview sooner and afterward getting them quickly out the door.

That, he said, will allow officials to bring back nearly 1,000 inmates housed in Virginia and eventually reduce the population enough to allow closure of housing units.

Pinto, however, says the system is "overcrowded in every institution."

"There's absolutely no way he's going to close housing units," he said. "It's all based on projections, and the department has never been good at projections."

In order to save money, he said, officials have to get overtime under control or trim fat in what he called a "top-heavy" department.

"This is the reality of it: We are already at bare-minimum staffing," he said.

Potteiger said the system has grown much more efficient over the past few years.

The board now interviews inmates several months prior to their minimum release date, so they can leave closer to that time if granted parole.

After parole is granted, it sometimes takes time for his home plan to be evaluated and approved by an agent in the field, he said.

Potteiger points out that the three-year recidivism rate is now 42 percent, a reduction of 6 percent over the past five years.

In addition, those who violate technical provisions of parole are managed with sanctions and special treatment centers so fewer go back to prison.

Wetzel said with every decrease of 200 to 250 inmates, he can close one of the system's modular housing units, allowing guards to be sent to other units.

He said that will help reduce the overtime cited by Pinto, which costs the prison budget more than $60 million a year.

"If we're going to fundamentally change how we're spending money in corrections, this is what we've got to do," said Wetzel.

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