New prisons remain shuttered as states face budget crunch | NevadaAppeal.com
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New prisons remain shuttered as states face budget crunch

Associated Press

Nevada and other states have spent millions of dollars building new prisons to ease pressure on existing facilities, but the pressure on budgets to operate them apparently has proved to be even greater.

Jackie Crawford, director of the Nevada Department of Corrections, said she has recommended the cancellation of a planned $35 million expansion at the state’s High Desert Prison to save as much as $3 million in annual operational costs. The state also has closed down a wing of the Nevada State Prison to cut costs.

In Pennsylvania, where the inmate population recently topped 40,000 for the first time, new prisons in Forest and Fayette counties will not be opened at least until 2004.

Both western Pennsylvania counties have looked to the prisons to generate revenue.

With the state facing a projected deficit of $433 million this summer, the state Department of Corrections was asked to trim $15 million from its annual budget.

“The department either had to lay people off or delay opening these prisons,” said Corrections Department spokeswoman Susan McNaughton. “It’s not like we don’t need the space — we really do. We just don’t have the money.”

Pennsylvania is not alone, said Joe Weedon, the legislative liaison for the American Correctional Association, an industry group.

“State departments of corrections are being asked by their governors to streamline budgets to meet cost limitations,” Weedon said. “Many states, including Pennsylvania, have elected to delay the opening of facilities as a way of meeting those budgetary obligations.”

Weedon could not say how many states have chosen to delay opening new prisons, but corrections officials from several states confirmed that prisons have not been opened or have been closed for budgetary reasons.

In Illinois, the $143 million maximum-security Thompson Correctional Center that was to house 2,200 inmates was completed months ago, but remains empty because of a budget crunch in that state.

“It’s just sitting there,” said spokesman Brian Fairchild. “We don’t have any money.”

The state also closed another prison and released its staff, though 220 of those workers have since been rehired in other positions, Fairchild said.

In Wisconsin, the $48 million New Lisbon prison completed last year remains closed and its future is uncertain. The state’s inmate population is growing by about 11 inmates each week, Wisconsin Department of Corrections spokesman Bill Clausius said.

“We have 3,500 prisoners housed in other states right now,” Clausius said. “But the state, depending on who you talk to, is facing a $2.8 billion biennium deficit.”

Pennsylvania has also seen a rise in the inmate population, up to 40,062 as of Tuesday, more than 3,200 above last year’s population, McNaughton said. The prison system has a capacity of 34,433. Each new prison has about 2,000 beds.

“We double-cell lot of inmates,” she said “We’re just getting to the point where we really need the space.”

Prison officials in each state emphasized that the prisons remain secure.

But for surrounding communities that lobbied for a prison after other industries failed, the prisons represent a way to revitalize their economies. In addition to hundreds of new jobs, prison-hosting communities see millions of dollars generated from locally supplied support services ranging from laundry to food.

Wes Warren, the general manager for two hotels in northwest Pennsylvania, said a new Microtel Inn a few miles from the State Correctional Institute-Forest is about a third of the way through construction.

“If it wasn’t for prison, there wouldn’t be a hotel,” Warren said.

Forest County, where the prison sits dormant, consistently lists the highest unemployment rate in Pennsylvania. The region lost much of its economic vitality with the closure of a plastics plant and a glass plant in the mid-1980s, said county Commissioner Basil Huffman.

“We get people up here for the hunting season and then the trout season and that’s about it,” he said. “As soon as people knew the prison was coming, a lot of that’s changed. We’ve got a lot riding on that prison.”