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Pennsylvania prison costs soar despite facility closures · Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections is planning to budget more than $300 million for next year even as the incarcerated population declines and two facilities recently closed, raising tough questions among lawmakers.

Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro's budget proposal to the state Legislature included more than $200 million in additional funding for the department, bringing the agency's total request to about $3.3 billion. The department is also asking lawmakers to approve $100 million in additional funding to cover expenses beyond last year's projections.

Officials maintain the increase is necessary to cover both additional federal requirements and dwindling federal funding; obligations arising from employee union contracts; and overtime caused by vacancies.

But lawmakers questioned why such a significant increase was needed after the prison system promised savings following the closure of two facilities in 2017 and 2020. State Senator Lisa Baker (R., Luzerne) noted that the request was twice what taxpayers were supposed to save.

“What happened to the cost savings we expected from these closures?” Baker asked during a budget meeting in February. “If we look at the cost of transmission, it doesn’t seem to be a saving. Taxpayers will be wondering how we proposed $120 million in closures, and we are currently anticipating a double increase.”

The simple answer? It costs more to do the same thing.

The Department of Corrections serves nearly 38,000 inmates in 24 prisons and employs more than 17,000 people in both the prison and probation systems. His budget includes the cost of operating prisons, which are his largest expenses, as well as operating the state's parole and pardon boards, the victim advocate's office and the parole system.

About 85 percent of the corrections budget increase is due to cost increases, Harry told lawmakers at the hearing, the costs of maintaining the same level of service the department currently provides.

State prisons are the largest cost driver, both through overspending last year and additional spending next year. The agency's proposed budget includes a $169 million increase for prisons alone, funds to be used for increasing expenses such as supplies, food and facility maintenance, and contractually mandated pay increases for unionized staff and security officers .

The agency also wants lawmakers to approve $53 million to cover similar contractually mandated increases in the previous fiscal year.

Medically assisted treatment

The department also experienced a significant increase in the cost of providing medication-assisted treatment (MAT) to incarcerated individuals suffering from opioid use disorder.

MAT uses a combination of counseling, behavioral therapy, and medication to help people recover from opioid addiction. In April 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice ruled that opioid use disorder counts as a disability under federal law, requiring the state prison system to expand its decades-old MAT program to provide appropriate housing options.

Despite the mandate, available federal grants do not cover the full cost of Pennsylvania's expanded program, which exceeded budget by $10.5 million. Drugs and treatment will cost $30 million in the next fiscal year.

About 1,800 people in Pennsylvania state prisons receive this type of treatment, Harry said, but the department expects that number to grow as some county jails begin offering their own therapies for people incarcerated before trial .

Personnel problems

Years after the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, vacancies in Pennsylvania's prisons continue to pose problems, causing overtime costs to exceed last year's projections by $30 million.

Across prisons, about 8% of positions were unfilled in April, including 779 vacancies for correctional officers.

“Last year, in 2023, I see the number that there were 40 employees in your department who had received over $100,000 in overtime pay,” said State Senator Greg Rothman (R., Perry). “Is that acceptable?”

Harry told lawmakers that the department is focused on recruiting and retaining employees to reduce the amount of overtime required to properly staff prisons. The department has expanded its hiring efforts across state borders to include people age 18, although only 16 correctional officers under the age of 21 have been hired so far.

At the same time, the population is smaller than before the pandemic, when the number fell from more than 45,000 people in 2020 to about 36,000 people in 2022.

The population has slowly increased over the past two years and the agency expects it to level off at around 40,000 people.

But the department doesn't necessarily adjust staffing levels in lockstep with fluctuations in the incarcerated population because staffing needs vary by facility and depend on the prison's physical layout, programs offered and more, said department spokeswoman Maria Bivens.

“In addition, the DOC conducts regular staff surveys at its facilities to ensure effective staff allocation,” she said.

Unplanned absences still prompt correctional officers to volunteer for extra shifts, even though the department has lowered its mandatory overtime rate. Correctional officers are also required to fill hospital positions when an incarcerated person is being treated at a medical facility outside of the prison, Bivens said.

“And while the prison population has declined from peaks several years ago, the remaining population is older and requires more medical care, requiring additional staffing,” she said.

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Anna Harden

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