State Correctional Institution Phoenix, the $400 million replacement for SCI Graterford in Skipjack Township, Pennsylvania, began accepting prisoners in March 2018. At that time the decade-long project – the second-most costly public building in the state – was already two years behind schedule, with only one-third of its cells finished and available.
One of three prisons approved in 2007 under then-Governor Ed Rendell, SCI Phoenix – located about a mile from the Graterford facility – is designed to hold more prisoners in fewer cells. At full capacity, 3,830 prisoners will be housed in 1,972 cells, most of which are double-bunked.
Pennsylvania’s prison population has been declining, dropping four percent in the past five years – while the state’s overall population grew just 3/10 of a percent. Under former Governor Tom Corbett, the Department of Corrections began replacing older facilities like Graterford, an effort that continues under current Governor Tom Wolf. The average cost per prisoner at Phoenix will be about $40,000 annually, which is a significant savings over the costs at Graterford.
However, Governor Wolf and DOC Secretary John E. Wetzel, a Corbett appointee, face blow-back from lawmakers who have sponsored legislation to curb prison closures in an effort to staunch associated job losses in rural communities where the facilities are located.
Most of Graterford’s prisoners and staff will transfer to SCI Phoenix. The change will be like going “from a city to a teeny, tiny little town,” said attorney Teri Himebaugh, who represented Graterford prisoners for over 30 years in a lawsuit challenging asbestos exposure and living conditions at that facility.
SCI Phoenix will have 1 million square feet of floor space and two-bed, air-conditioned cells located in 15 two-story cellblocks. The housing units are divided among Phoenix East, Phoenix West and a Female Transitional Unit (FTU), all surrounded by eight guard towers. Phoenix West will house the facility’s general population. Phoenix East will hold new prisoners, parole violators and the state’s 156 death row prisoners. The FTU will focus on re-entry into the general population and family reunification.
After four prisoners committed suicide over a five-week period beginning February 2018, Graterford superintendent Cynthia Link decided not to move to SCI Phoenix as originally planned, instead retiring in March 2018. But she had good things to say about the replacement facility.
“We really believe that this is going to function so much better than Graterford,” she said, calling Graterford “old and falling apart” while SCI Phoenix will be “state-of-the-art.”
She also cited “upgrades” at Phoenix, including intercoms in every cell and single shower stalls, as opposed to communal showers. DOC spokeswoman Sue McNaughtin said the new facility also has “better lines of sight for staff. There aren’t any corners someone can hide in.”
Perimeter security also received improvements from Graterford’s 34-foot perimeter wall, in the form of an “electronic fence detection system,” said DOC critical incident manager Walter Grunder. Between two concentric fences is “a system that basically detects weight,” he explained. “So, if someone were to make it between the fences, it would detect weight here and it would also set off an alarm.”
He added, “We would be able to respond to that alarm, find out who or what was in between the fences using cameras and staff.”
While state officials are eager to open SCI Phoenix, it’s “been a terrible construction project,” said DOC Secretary Wetzel. “Primarily from substandard construction.”
In mid-November 2017, inspectors were reviewing 3,000 electrical, mechanical and architectural “deficiencies.” The prison was originally scheduled to open in 2015, but problems with subcontractors caused delays.
In 2017, when the project was just two years behind schedule, the DOC hired Urban Engineers, Inc. to take over project management from Hill International Ltd. Both firms are based in Philadelphia. Hill and the building project’s general contractor, Walsh Heery, blamed each other for the delays. Hill received over $20 million from the state, while Urban has thus far been paid $815,000.
By contract, the delays should cost Walsh Heery $35,000 per day in penalties, or about $30 million as of May 2018. The general contractor, however, argued that it should be paid $2 million for bringing subcontractors back to finish the work.
In May 2018, the state advanced Walsh Heery $2 million to get the project done, but it still expects to recover that amount from the company. The additional payments reflect an effort by state officials to finish the project and relocate the remainder of Graterford’s prisoner population and staff before the next fiscal year begins on July 1, 2018.
In addition to ten unfinished cellblocks, two activities buildings, one of two prison industry buildings and three support buildings were still awaiting final inspection as of March 2018, according to Troy Thompson, a spokesman for the state’s Department of General Services
Only the Convention Center in Philadelphia cost state taxpayers more than SCI Phoenix’s $400 million price tag, though former Graterford superintendent Link said that prisoners housed at the new facility will see “an improvement in their quality of life.”
Yet according to a May 21, 2018 news report, some prisoners have expressed concerns about moving from single cells at Graterford into double-bunked cells at SCI Phoenix.
“It becomes a hassle, and it becomes an issue because everybody brings in a different personality, everybody brings in a different character,” noted state prisoner Rickey Duncan.
Although SCI Graterford will no longer house prisoners, it will remain open until state officials decide what to do with the shuttered facility.
Sources: www.philly.com, www.montgomerynews.com, www.whyy.com, www.core.pa.gov
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