Sep. 23—The Berks County commissioners are trying to make sure the public plays a role in the planning of the biggest construction project in the history of the county.
Berks is in the very early stages of building a new correctional facility, an effort that will carry an estimated price tag of about $200 million. That's the kind of thing county leaders say they want to get right.
To aid in that effort, the commissioners have decided to hold a series of community forums throughout the process to share updates and get feedback. The first of those was held Thursday evening.
"We are not in a rush to build a new jail," Commissioners Chairman Christian Leinbach said at the start of the forum. "Our goal is to do what needs to be done — right. And to do it with data that we know is reliable and in a very public setting so that the community knows what we're doing, why we're doing it and how much it will cost."
Leinbach said his hope is that when the commissioners ultimately make a decision community members will be able to say they understand what is being done and feel they had the opportunity to provide input.
Constructing a new jail is something that has been a topic of discussion for the commissioners for the last several years, with county officials acknowledging there are significant structural and operational problems at the existing Bern Township facility. The plan was put on hold due to the COVID pandemic and other factors, but was revived in January.
The commissioners hired CGL at that point to help them design the new facility.
Along with the commissioners and members of the steering committee that will oversee the years-long process of designing and constructing the new correctional facility, representatives from CGL were also on hand Thursday evening.
Together, they explained the need for and value of the project.
Why does the county need a new prison?
"The new facility will be significantly more cost-effective to build rather than renovating the existing facility with more efficient and sustainable space," said Commissioner Kevin Barnhardt, steering committee chairman. "Flexible spaces for rehabilitation and education will better prepare individuals to reenter the community."
He said the new building will reflect a modernized approach to justice and incarceration that will focus on connecting inmates with service providers in the community before they leave the facility in the hope that these efforts reduce recidivism in the future.
What steps have been taken?
The county has already begun the process of collecting information to help make those decisions, which will impact the design and cost of the facility. In early May, CGL presented the commissioners with the results of a needs assessment study the company performed.
That assessment showed county officials have been making strides over the past five years to keep people from ending up behind bars. A CGL representative told the commissioners that many of the data points they examined to complete its first needs assessment in 2018 had dramatically changed for the better.
Based on those changes, the firm now believes the county should build a facility to accommodate 960 beds, representing a reduction of nearly 24% from the previous needs assessment.
Where are they in the process?
With a better understanding of how changes in the criminal justice system have impacted how many inmates the county will have behind bars in the future, the committee is now figuring out what the new correctional facility needs to look like to fill those needs.
That means deciding how much direct supervision administrators want over inmates, whether they want greater separation of inmates based on specific classifications and how much space should be devoted to those with severe mental health needs.
But it also means deciding how to better provide educational programming and how best to partner with organizations already providing those services in the community.
Barnhardt said the committee has been conducting community focus groups with organizations throughout the county to help answer those kinds of questions. He said representatives from the Berks County Community Foundation have expressed interest in helping provide literacy classes and leaders of the Clare of Assisi House have spoken about offering parenting courses.
Warden Jeffrey Smith said those conversations are resulting in positive developments.
"If we had more space, we could provide more of these services," he said. "So that is something that we are focusing on as we look to build this new facility. There is so much more that we could do to facilitate those partnerships."
Smith said the committee also plans to speak with current inmates about what they would like to see.
Barnhardt said they have already learned a few things on that front. He said that when the committee met with representatives from Hope Rescue Mission it heard directly from a former inmate who now works there about changes he would like to see made at the facility. Among those changes was the desire to appear virtually at court proceedings rather than leaving the jail for routine status hearings.
"It was very impactful to hear his view on the present conditions," Barnhardt said. "And what stuck out to me was that he would rather stay at the facility than to, as he put it, be humiliated by being transported back and forth to the courthouse."
A slow process
Leinbach stressed that no final decision about the actual construction of the facility would likely be made until late 2023 or early 2024.
Commissioner Michael Rivera echoed that, adding that the construction of a new facility is a huge commitment for the county and something that leaders are not taking lightly. He said this decision is going to have a big impact on county taxpayers as well as those who will be incarcerated at the facility.
"I have not made up my mind yet on what the jail should look like," he said. "I'm waiting on the input from the committee that has been working on this, from CGL who has been making recommendations and from the community."
Despite the effort to generate input from the community, the meeting Thursday was sparsely attended. The boardroom where it took place was mostly filled with county workers who have been part of the planning process.
Barnhardt said he was a little disappointed by the low turnout.
"I certainly would have liked to see more people here and online," he said after the meeting. "But I think because it is so early in the process it has not piqued the interest of the community as of yet. This is going to be a long slog."
Barnhardt said the meeting was just the first in a series. He also encouraged those interested in the project to check out a website that the county has launched to keep the lines of communication open with residents as they work toward building the new county correctional facility.
The website, bccf.countyofberks.com, will be the hub for all information and updates related to the project.