By Katie Weidenboerner
RIDGWAY — One inmate was released from Elk County Jail Tuesday morning and by 3 o’clock in the afternoon two more went in.
Working at the jail for 27 years, Warden Greg Gebauer said he’s never seen the population as high as it currently is. In the 1980s, when he started, there were 10 inmates on average. On Tuesday afternoon, the population was 83.
“I don’t think it’s going to get any better,” Gebauer said. “We used to see three to five inmates a week. Now we’re seeing, on average, three to five inmates a day.”
Gebauer can’t give a definitive answer as to why the population has increased so dramatically. He did say, however, many inmates are in due to probation or parole violations stemming from drug and alcohol issues. Gebauer has also seen an increase in inmates who are charged with harder crimes.
The area’s rampant bath salt problem also lands people in jail for probation and parole violations or for doing something bizarre which ends up in a police encounter. The designer drug containing synthetic chemicals similar to amphetamines, elicits affects such as agitation, paranoia, hallucinations, chest pain, increased pulse rate, increased blood pressure and suicidal thoughts.
Taking at least four months to go through the court process also tends to bog the jail down with inmates.
“We have one guy in on criminal homicide who has been in over a year. He’s been through his preliminary hearing and that’s it,” Gebauer said. “So you can see how that clogs up the system, too.”
Overcrowding has impacted the prison’s budget — drastically — with more meals to be cooked and medical bills to be paid.
“A lot of these people who come in aren’t in the best of health, even if they are younger. They’re on the street, they aren’t compliant if they have medical problems, often because they are drinking or doing drugs,” Gebauer said. “They end up coming into jail with a magnitude of medical problems, and we have to tend to those medical needs.”
The largest cost incurred with the growing prisoner population is that of housing prisoners at other facilities due to overcrowding. Housing inmates in other counties’ facilities costs between $55-$70 per day. Elk County houses out inmates to Jefferson, Centre, Clinton and Blair counties.
“It’s been crazy,” Gebauer said. “It’s only April, and I’ve already exhausted my line item for out-of-county housing.”
The total capacity in the jail in Ridgway is 77.
Nineteen women are currently on the books, which is the most Gebauer has seen in his entire career. With the ability to only hold 12 women in Ridgway results in the others being sent to other counties..
The more inmates in-house, the more apt the jail is to experience problems with tensions arising among inmates.
Counseling, drug and alcohol, and religious programs are all available to inmates at the prison. Prison staff also work with the probation department to get inmates into drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs.
“Statistics show that it doesn’t work. Very seldomly will an offender make it through a (rehab) program successfully. Even if they do make it through a program successfully, they go out and start the lifestyle again by drinking or using drugs,” Gebauer said.
Gebauer said eventually “enough is enough” and offenders need to start going to the state prison system. Although state prisons are crowded as well, a person in the state system is one less which needs dealt with and paid for at the county level.