WEST BURLINGTON TOWNSHIP - The Bradford County commissioners are planning to go forward with a $400,000 construction project that would convert the Bradford County Correctional Facility's gymnasium into a medium-security housing unit, provided the Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections raises no objections to the plan when he visits the jail today.

The conversion, which would create a dormitory-style unit that would house 48 inmates in bunk beds, would be "a good first step" in addressing the overcrowding problem at the jail, said Doug McLinko, chairman of the Bradford County commissioners.

At the Bradford County Prison Board meeting on Thursday, McLinko said the conversion of the gym to a housing unit is the only option on the table at this time for expanding the jail.

However, Bradford County Commissioner Mark Smith said later at the meeting that it might be less expensive to address the overcrowding by expanding two existing male medium-security housing units at the jail, even though there would be a significantly higher construction cost involved.

Smith explained that no additional corrections officers would need to be hired to supervise the expanded medium-security units, whereas the housing unit created by converting the gym would need to be supervised by a corrections officer 24/7.

"I think we owe it to the taxpayers to consider all options" before embarking on a construction project to address the overcrowding, Smith said after the Prison Board meeting.

McLinko said he believes that the money the county will receive from the newly established gas impact fee could be used to pay for a construction project to expand the jail.

Converting the gym to a housing unit would require the county to spend $300,000 annually on additional staffing, which would consist of corrections officers and support staff, including additional counseling staff, Smith said.

By contrast, the expansion of the medium-security housing units would require the county to spend $150,000 annually on additional staffing, which would consist only of support staff, he said.

Expanding the existing medium-security units would give the jail 56 additional beds, and if the men's work-release unit was also expanded at the same time, the project would give the jail a total of 90 additional beds, Smith said.

The Bradford County Correctional Facility has a capacity of 198 inmates.

Currently, there are 199 Bradford County jail inmates, 177 of whom are housed at the Bradford County Correctional Facility, Bradford County jail Warden Donald Stewart said. Due to the overcrowding, Bradford County is housing 13 of its inmates at the Tioga and Wayne county jails, costing the county $815 per day, the warden said.

The other nine Bradford County inmates are located temporarily in other facilities at which the county does not pay to house them, he said.

To address the overcrowding, the county earlier this year added 10 beds - which are filled - to the Bradford County Correctional Facility's male work-release unit, and six beds to the women's work-release unit, Stewart and Deputy Warden Peter Quattrini Jr. said. The addition of the beds to the work-release units is temporary and is not causing the county to be out of compliance with state regulations, Quattrini said.

Smith also expressed doubts at the Prison Board meeting on whether the conversion of the gym would solve the overcrowding problem.

"It (the converted gym) will be full the day it's done," he said.

But McLinko countered that expanding the medium-security units will result in them quickly filling up, too.

McLinko said that converting the gym will allow the county's excess prisoners to be brought back to the jail and give the county some "breathing room" to consider longer-term solutions to address the overcrowding problems.

Those solutions including working to make sure that those charged or convicted of crimes are moved through the county's criminal justice system as efficiently as possible, so that inmates aren't staying at the jail longer than they need to, and possibly creating a day-reporting facility or a work-release center, he said.

A day-reporting facility and a work-release center would provide alternatives to incarcerating prisoners at the jail.

A day-reporting facility would be for people on probation or parole. If an offender violated the conditions of his or her probation or parole, a judge could, for example, order the offender to report daily to the day-reporting facility and undergo regular drug and alcohol testing, as an alternative to being incarcerated at the county jail, Sheriff Clinton "C.J." Walters said.

A work-release center is a facility where an offender, who worked at a job during the day, could be housed at night, he said. A work-release center is typically located away from a jail, and has less stringent supervision and more relaxed rules than a jail, he said.

Smith said that another advantage of expanding the existing medium security units is that it would be safer, since the inmates would be housed in cells.

The possibility of fights and assaults in a dormitory-style prison housing unit "is always a concern," Warden Stewart said.

If the gym becomes a housing unit, the county would convert an outdoor area next to the jail, which is already surrounded by razor-wire fencing, into an outdoor recreation area, the warden said.

A tower, which would allow a corrections officer to supervise the outdoor rec area, would also need to be constructed, as would some additional fencing, he said.

The jail does not have any enclosed area inside the jail that could be used as a recreation area in the winter, he said.

The conversion of the gym would mainly involve installing shower and toilet facilities next to the gym in an area that currently houses the jail's print shop, he said.

A small officer's station would also need to be constructed in the converted gym, he said.

The converted gym would house, in addition to bunk beds, tables and chairs, he said.

Bradford County Commissioner Daryl Miller said the housing unit could be easily converted back to a gym if the inmate population at the jail dropped in the future.

Stewart said that other jails have also converted their gyms into housing units.

Smith has said the large increase in the county's population in recent years is the main reason for the overcrowding at the Bradford County Correctional Facility, since a larger population will result in more people being sentenced to jail.

The population increased due to natural gas drilling in the area.

Arrests resulting from the bath salts and other new synthetic drugs have also been cited by the warden as a reason for the increase.

Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John E. Wetzel is scheduled to tour the Bradford County Correctional Facility today, and also advise the commissioners today on how to address the overcrowding problem. Wetzel will advise the commissioners on some of the longer-term solutions to the overcrowding, McLinko said.

Under a new state law aimed at addressing overcrowding in county jails, Bradford County inmates whose maximum sentence is two years or more must be housed in a state prison, unless the inmate was convicted only of DUI.

The requirement that the prisoners be housed in a state prison is in effect when the county jail's inmate population is above 142, and Warden Stewart said he does not foresee the inmate population at the jail falling below that threshold in the future.

Act 81, which is the new law that addresses where prisoners are to serve their sentence, went into effect in November, and does not affect inmates who were sentenced before November.

Prior to the passage of the law, inmates with a maximum sentence of up to five years could be housed at the county jail.

Smith said he is opposed to using the revenue from the impact fee to pay for the additional staffing that the expansion would require, since it is not known how much the revenue the county will be able to count on from the impact fee in the future. He said it would be more appropriate to spend revenue from the fee on one-time expenditures, such as capital projects.

James Loewenstein can be reached at (570) 265-1633; or email: jloewenstein@thedailyreview.com.