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Berks County commissioners move forward on prison project

After nearly four years of preliminary discussions, the Berks County commissioners took the first official steps toward building a new county prison.

The commissioners voted during their weekly board meeting Thursday to hire CGL Management Co., a national correctional industry planning and design firm, for about $650,000 to help guide them through the process needed to build the facility.

Constructing a prison is something that has been a topic of discussion for the commissioners for some time. They have acknowledged there are significant structural problems in the existing facility and a replacement is needed.

The process so far has been slow and deliberate as they investigate how changes in the criminal justice system could impact how many inmates the county will have behind bars in the future.

The commissioners have been considering things like how much direct supervision they want over the inmates, how big the cells should be, how much space should be devoted to treatment programs and whether they want greater separation of inmates based on specific classifications.

Decisions made on those issues will impact the design and overall price of the prison, and the county needs adequate information to make them.

That is why the commissioners have brought on CGL.

Commissioner Kevin Barnhardt, who serves as chairman of the prison board, has said the county isn’t equipped to handle everything that goes into building a new prison on its own. CGL, on the other hand, is.

The commissioners approved three agreements with the Georgia-based company, each covering a different aspect of the planning process.

  • The first agreement would update a needs assessment that was done by CGL in 2018 and would establish a plan for engaging the public in the planning process. The county would pay the firm $84,590 for those services.
  • The second agreement would have CGL advising the county on what the prison will look like physically and operationally. The county would pay the firm $431,200 for that service.
  • The third agreement would task CGL with building a financial model and procurement method for the commissioners to follow as they embark on the construction process. The county would pay the firm $136,200 for that service.

At Thursday’s meeting, Barnhardt said the project won’t happen quickly. He estimated it will take about four years, with two years of planning and two years of construction, to complete the new prison.

Barnhardt said the commissioners plan to take their time, particularly with the planning phase. He said it is vital that they understand the future outlook for the criminal justice system — including a move away from incarceration for nonviolent offenders and move toward rehabilitation — so that the facility they build is relevant and useful for decades to come.

Barnhardt’s remarks came in response to public comments from four county residents. They applauded the commissioners for being deliberate and committing to doing the necessary research to build a prison that aligns with the evolving views on incarceration.

Others’ input

Crystal Kowalski, a longtime activist who lives in Wyomissing and has worked on court-related issues for years, said she is encouraged by the unique opportunity the county has to take purposeful steps toward building a new kind of prison not focused on mass incarceration.

“We are fortunate enough to be presented with an actual construction project that can build a physical exit ramp off the mass incarceration highway,” she said. “Now is the time to ensure that the substantial progress this county has made in criminal justice reform is protected for future generations by building a jail that is based on current data.”

But Kowalski and the others also urged them to reach out to nonprofit organizations and other local stakeholders focused on helping communities improve outcomes in the criminal justice system.

Former Berks County Judge Arthur Grim said a project of this size and cost requires a careful study of information and recommendations from a variety of sources.

“This should include analysis proposals of research-based outcome measures from nonprofit organizations with no vested interest in the outcome like the Vera Institute of Justice and the Prison Policy Initiative,” he said. “They have helped counties across the country decrease their overreliance on jails by refraining from incarcerating low-level offenders and properly-vetted pretrial detainees.”

His wife, Louise Grim, shared similar thoughts.

“The county should be careful not to begin this process with preconceived ideas and should invite more than one organization to the table to ensure that we not only have a right-sized jail, but that we lead in the direction of a fair and effective penal system,” the Wyomissing resident said. “Our tax dollars are at stake here and every bed is at great cost to us.”

She said that throughout this planning process the commissioners should be mindful of the old adage: “If you build it, they will come.”

Wyomissing resident Jane Palmer said she is concerned the commissioners already have some predetermined ideas about what the prison will look like. She said she has heard Barnhardt state on two different occasions that the prison will contain about 1,000 beds, which she believes is too high.

“That sounds an awful lot like he and possibly all of you have come to a private understanding before the research has even begun,” she said. “If we’re going to pay CGL to research and project the prison population, we ought to do it without preconceived notions.”

‘They are a partner’

Barnhardt assured Palmer and the other residents that the steering committee overseeing the project will be taking many different perspectives into account as the process to design and construct a new prison gets underway.

“I know there is some concern that CGL profits from this,” he said. “CGL is not the contractor to build this facility. They are a partner in making sure we are researching all of the relevant data we need to have to build the right jail for probably for the next 30 to 50 years.”

He said the steering committee, which will be comprised of a small group of people, will be meeting regularly with members of the Berks County Criminal Justice Advisory Board throughout the process. He also stressed that the county intends to hold several public meetings to gather input from local residents.

But Barnhardt cautioned people from placing too much importance on the number of cells that will be at the facility, saying that the number of beds must not only reflect the population but allow for mobility within the prison.

“Even though the number of inmates right now might be 730 that doesn’t mean you build 730 cells,” he said. “We have need for segregation, for isolation, for discipline, for quarantine. We need room to move people through … so there is a lot of mobility that’s build into a jail.”

Commissioners Chairman Christian Leinbach said the whole point of bringing CGL on is to make sure the board is making the best possible decisions in an open and transparent manner.

And, he noted, the commissioners have not made any decisions regarding the overall design of the prison at this point.

“This is a major decision that will impact most likely the next 30 to 50 years of the jail and criminal justice system here in Berks County,” he said. “There is no rush to make decisions.”

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