Delayed opening: Is Pa.'s $400M prison '1st Class' or 'Struggling?'

The $400 million Phoenix prison is a subject of acrimony between the builder and the state monitor for the project.

Pennsylvanians wondering when the $400 million, concrete State Correctional Institution Phoenix will finally open can wonder a lot more, after reviewing the denunciatory letters exchanged by the prison's builder and the state's private agent monitoring the work. 

The largest prison ever built in a state whose incarcerated population has lately declined, Phoenix will house nearly 4,000 Philadelphia-area inmates, including its women's and death-row units, next to what Corrections Commissioner John Wetzel says is the badly outdated stone Graterford prison, in pleasant Skippack Township north of the city.

After the state rebid the job and early construction was delayed by weather, Phoenix was scheduled to open in November 2015. Contractor Walsh Heery Joint Venture, the Pittsburgh-based alliance of Chicago and Atlanta builders that has been overseeing construction since Tom Corbett was governor, has run up more than $14 million in "liquidated damages" it will have to pay, after blowing past that deadline, the state says.

On Nov. 3, Ed Kerber, one of Walsh Heery's senior project managers, wrote to the state's construction managers at Hill International in Philadelphia that his group was at last "ready and willing to turn over a first-class facility" to Pennsylvania and was just waiting for "a timely and efficient final and closeout inspection."

But Walsh Heery's claim that the prison was ready "is grossly inaccurate and misleading," wrote back Mark D. Dickinson, vice president at Hill, which represents the state Department of General Services in managing construction of Phoenix so it can be run, when it's ready, by Wetzel's Department of Corrections.

Walsh Heery officials have not responded to my calls and messages (some subcontractors have said they have that problem, too), and Hill spokesman John Paolin said his firm declined to comment. 

So I asked for the written record. General Services sent me copies of scores of reports and letters, a partial account that helps one appreciate the complexity and conflicts of building a safe, secure modern facility to multiple and sometimes changing and conflicting guidelines, on budget, through an array of private contractors.

The documents are heavily edited, for what state officials call security reasons. 

How bad are the problems? Old inspection reports from 2014 and 2015 list trouble with insulation, door closings, pipe corrosion, fire-alarm installation, concrete cracking and staining, and other issues requiring sometimes-costly do-overs or work-arounds. 

I wish I could say most of these have been resolved. But that is not clear. For example, a report on lighting problems is almost completely blacked out.  

The Inspector General's Office sent me a separate seven-page refusal, stating among other things that revealing anything about a 2015 investigation it conducted at the site "would chill government self-evaluation," "make future investigations more difficult," "harm [the Inspector General's] internal deliberation and investigative process," and even "reveal the mental impressions, conclusions or opinions" of taxpayer-paid lawyers. Which, they wrote, would be bad for the commonwealth. We like the dark.

So, back to the recent letters.

Before declaring that his firm was ready to turn over the site for opening, Walsh Heery's Kerber complained that Pennsylvania "has repeatedly failed" to document any quality concerns at the site.

Instead, he wrote, the state's agents at Hill have been putting out "general and conclusory" critical statements not backed by detailed evidence.

To be sure, the contractor acknowledged, "there are 43 items" still under discussion in weekly quality-control meetings. But "this is a very small list, considering the size and complexity of this project," Kerber added.

A  further 204 questions raised by the contractor itself remain open, but 20,000 more "have been closed," and Walsh Heery has been "very diligent" solving more, he concluded. He also objects to the state trying to get his firm to pay for field inspections in advance of the final walk-through: "The state has no right to attempt to back-charge." 

Hill, in its Dec. 12 reply, calls Kerber's claims "incorrect." Hill and state corrections officials have spent "extensive time" helping Walsh Heery "execute your contract," Dickinson insists. 

Besides the 43 "open" items the contractor cites, Hill has a list of 428 additional "site-wide issues" and other problems Dickinson says the contractor isn't counting. Plus 10,000 more potentially "unresolved" issues from Walsh Heery's own list (besides the 20,000 the contractor says it has solved.)

The state Department of Labor and Industry has found additional "unresolved" issues, Dickinson writes. And about 50 of 121 required reports from specialized professionals haven't yet arrived.  

In short, while acknowledging that most of the work is done, Hill says it can't be sure it's been done well, and concludes that Walsh Heery is still "struggling to deliver this project within the quality and performance requirements of the contract."

The big thing missing from these records, and still unaddressed by the state agencies overseeing this job: a plan and schedule for how they're going to get past the paperwork, accusations and penalties, and get Phoenix open.