One of the biggest responsibilities of the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners is the budget, planning and oversight of Lancaster County Prison. Care, custody and control are mandated by law for those who are incarcerated at the county jail.
The prison and community re-entry programs for those set to be released have proven to be sensitive issues. Most public officials either take “tough on crime” positions or just ignore these issues altogether when running for office. But choosing not to engage the public about the challenges that face those behind the prison’s walls — either as incarcerated persons or as dedicated employees — doesn’t get us anywhere.
The time is overdue to act on the development of a new jail.
Community groups like the one I lead — Have A Heart for Persons in the Criminal Justice System — and Justice & Mercy interact with prison officials as well as the community to make certain that people get the chances they need to succeed. We are not for creating situations conducive to crime. In fact, our aim is quite the opposite.
Our organization formed more than 10 years ago because of concerns that those being incarcerated were not being “corrected,” but instead were being released into our community with the added stigma of being offenders. They were less likely to find employment and more likely to return to jail with new charges.
Over these past few years, the county’s leadership has changed, as has the past mindset of stigmatizing the incarcerated and attempting to discredit ardent advocates of criminal justice reform.
Getting involved means working to reduce crime and improve public safety, thereby making way for restored families and a healthier community. We advocate linking faith-based organizations and service providers to those detained behind the prison’s walls at a time when they are most receptive to choosing a different lifestyle. Isolation in jail tends to lead to isolation in society. Community integration is how we will reduce crime.
An important point: Most of those incarcerated in the county prison are not violent criminals; violent felons are sent to state prison. Half of those in Lancaster County Prison are diagnosed with a mental illness, and more than 70 percent have crimes linked directly to drug and alcohol addiction.
Instead of warehousing them in jail with repeated sojourns, long-term treatment and services that provide opportunities make better use of our taxpayer dollars.
What kind of return are we getting on our investment?
The county commissioners have allocated or spent millions of dollars on extensive maintenance for the prison’s roof, its HVAC system and sewer pipes, but the facility is still a deteriorating monstrosity unfit for human habitation and lacking the resources necessary for modern prison management.
Conditions are awful: excessive heat in the summer and extreme cold in the winter because of a heating, ventilation and air conditioning system that is inefficient and can’t be rectified. Current staff members do the best they can, but they cannot control the rodents that come in after hard rains, or the water that leaks through the ceiling into the electrical fixtures. When outdated
fixtures break, more expensive custom-made replacements must be ordered. Portions of the facility are closed because they cannot be used.
More than 200 people are employed at Lancaster County Prison.
The prison’s officers and support staff work long hours in difficult conditions and deserve to feel proud of what they do in a good environment.
Instead of continuing to foolishly spend taxpayer money on an antiquated structure, we need to look at a transitional plan to locate and invest in land for a new venue, and build an economical and modern facility.
Such a future-focused jail would permit more corrective programs offered by nonprofit community organizations.
Now is the time to take advantage of green-energy grant funds and to purchase land before it becomes more expensive. The current facility is landlocked and cannot be expanded. Transferring the prison to another location will allow the sale of the current property to a private company that can provide tax revenue to the City of Lancaster.
Later this year, we will vote for those who will serve as our county commissioners until 2023.
Why should we throw more good money after bad while continuing to maintain a rapidly deteriorating jail? Voters, please ask the candidates about their positions on whether and when a new jail should be built.
If you are interested in seeing the inside of Lancaster County Prison for yourself, please message us on Facebook at Have A Heart for Persons in the Criminal Justice System and we will ask prison management to arrange a tour.
• Jean Bickmire is president of Have A Heart for Persons in the Criminal Justice System, a Lancaster prison reform group (website: bit.ly/HaveAHeartLancaster).
The facility is a deteriorating monstrosity unfit for human habitation and lacking the resources necessary for modern prison management.