CLEARFIELD — The Clearfield County Prison Board on Tuesday discussed the lack of space at the jail and whether the inmate population should be capped at the jail.
President Judge Fredric J. Ammerman said Warden David Kessling found a policy dating back to 2007 that is no longer applicable and is outdated.
The policy set the Clearfield County Jail’s capacity at 144 and once the inmate population reached 139, the warden was to notify county officials and they were to meet to find ways to keep the inmate population at less than 144.
In recent years the jail population has regularly exceeded 144 inmates.
Ammerman said they shouldn’t have a policy that caps the number of inmates.
However, Commissioner Dave Glass said he is willing to have the cap number adjusted, but said they should have an upper limit to the number of inmates in the jail for safety reasons, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If we get one COVID-19 case in this jail with 174 people, there will be 100 cases before we know it,” Glass said. “We are setting ourselves up for a major problem if we don’t get this under control.”
Ammerman asked if Glass is arguing to have people set free because there is no room at the jail. Glass said once the cap is reached the county should transport inmates to other facilities.
District Attorney Ryan Sayers said it makes sense to set a limit on the number of inmates, but the problem with doing that now is they aren’t sure if Centre County or Jefferson County are taking any more outside inmates due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The county has housed inmates in the Centre and Jefferson county jails when it doesn’t have enough space in CCJ.
Kessling said he hasn’t checked with those jails recently on whether they would take inmates from Clearfield.
Glass asked if the county should use some of its CARES (Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security) Act funds to purchase more GPS ankle monitoring bracelets to allow more people to be placed on home detention.
Sayers said the county’s current policy is that inmates who get home detention should serve at least half of their sentence in the jail and asked Ammerman if the courts would be willing to waive this requirement on those who have short prison sentences like a 72-hour DUI sentence.
Ammerman said he would be willing to consider it on a case-by-case basis.
Kessling said he ordered 65 additional beds and they will be converting many of the single occupancy cells and converting them into double occupancy by installing bunk beds to expand the capacity at the jail.
He said the county has had an overcrowding problem at the jail for years and until they add more space it will continue to be a problem.
“We need more space,” Kessling said.
Kessling said over the past three years the county has spent a total of $877,000 to house inmates in other county jails and said they are close to having to put inmates in other jails because they are running out of space.
Kessling also said the facilities at the jail are in poor condition. For example, there are also several corners of the jail that have significant structural problems and the roof is leaking and needs to be replaced.
Commissioner Tony Scotto said he is skeptical about spending $25-$35 million to build a new jail and putting that cost on the taxpayers. He said it might be better to close the jail and house all inmates in other counties. But he said the county is having a study done to look into whether it would be feasible to add more space at the jail.
Sayers said perhaps it would be more economically feasible to build a large jail that could hold 500 inmates and house state inmates as well as inmates from other counties.
Commissioner John Sobel said several counties undertook jail expansion projects and they didn’t work out well financially for them.
The McClure Company is currently performing an assessment on what needs to be done at the jail. Glass said he spoke with someone with McClure who said right now the jail is safe, but it probably won’t be in five years if something isn’t done.
“We let this go too long,” Glass said. “We have a major problem with this facility. It will either need to be repaired, replaced or shut down. The status quo is completely unacceptable.”
Ammerman said he appreciates the difficulty of the decision the commissioners have in deciding what to do with the jail, but he said this is the commissioners decision.