The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

March 28, 2013

Chance to build a more effective prison


Daily Item

---- — Northumberland County Commissioners agree on a serious solution to the aging and troubled prison in Sunbury that has been the source of contention, misery and loss in recent years.

Some of the prison's problems were certainly due to the setting, the inability to work within a physical space designed for another century and a different social and political point of view about inmates and punishment.

Other issues, such as inappropriate, unprofessional or borderline criminal behavior by the staff, were less traceable to the facility. But a dungeon-like environment must be a contributing factor to dungeon-like practices at some level, and the troubles persisted through successive generations of officers and administrators.

These obstacles, exploited at every turn by those housed in the prison who had all the time in the world and little to lose, have compounded into situations ripe for legal challenge and expensive settlements.

No one likes having to build prisons. They are monuments to our failings as individuals and as a society.

Although Northumberland appeared to have arrived at the crossroads of reform reluctantly, the decision represents an opportunity for a greater than average leap forward.

Fed up with escalating costs for correction, many states, including Pennsylvania, have recently invested larger sums in probation and parole and have turned to treatment and diversion to break a cycle of recidivism that demonstrated year after year that virtually nothing was being corrected by departments of corrections.

In the past five years, a number of states, beginning with Texas, have brought prison building to a screeching halt. "Nationally," according to the Pew Research Center, "29 states reduced their imprisonment rates over the past five years, and the crime rate went down in all but three of them."

These successes were possible because of improved research about which inmates were most likely to reoffend and what interventions and new supervision technologies were most likely to change those behaviors and attitudes.

Pilot programs, research and the success they have produced in contrast to the revolving doors of prisons past, have changed public attitudes towards corrections. The wave is moving in more productive directions at a time when Northumberland County's prison has run out its useable lifetime.

With a renewed focus, however, Northumberland County officials can take this opportunity to examine the evidence-based approaches that are producing results and build more effectively and efficiently on that basis.