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Pa. sending prisoners out of old Graterford before new Phoenix prison is ready

Joseph N. DiStefano, Staff Writer

Updated: Monday, February 5, 2018, 4:52 PM

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel leads a tour through the newest prison in Pennsylvania Friday, September 01, 2017 at State Correction Institution Phoenix in Skippack, Pennsylvania. The facility is inching closer to opening, two years late, to replace Graterford Prison at a cost of $400 million. (WILLIAM THOMAS CAIN / For The Philadelphia Inquirer)

Phoenix, Pennsylvania’s newest, most expensive state correctional institution, is scheduled to open by the end of June. But after more than two years of construction delays — with disputed penalty payments owed by contractors mounting at $35,000 a day — the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections isn’t waiting for the 15 concrete cellblock buildings of the new one million-square-foot prison in Skippack Township to be ready before emptying parts of the aging Graterford prison next door.

State officials have already moved more than 1,000 inmates out of Graterford and sent them to other prisons around the state, the department’s monthly prison census shows.

Why? For one thing, Phoenix, which contractors had promised to build by 2014, is not ready yet. As of last week, “no additional buildings have received their certificates of occupancy” since last November, when several buildings used by guards and for daytime programs were approved to be handed over to the Department of Corrections, said Troy Thompson, spokesman for the state Department of General Services, which oversees construction of the $400 million Phoenix project and other state building construction.

Six of the 15 planned cellblocks — Housing Units D, E, F, G, H and J — have received “final” inspections and are “close” to being ready to be handed over to Corrections, said Thompson. Two more housing units — S and T — and additional activities and support buildings “have had a preliminary certificate of occupancy inspection and are having any issues that need to be addressed resolved” to prepare for final inspections, he added. There are 12 main housing blocks.

Early construction under Phoenix’s “design-build” plan — when architects and designers work alongside builders as the project goes up — was delayed due to problems with insulation, door closings, pipe corrosion, fire-alarm installation, concrete cracking and staining, and other issues requiring sometimes-costly do-overs or workarounds.

State officials have declined to provide full records of construction problems, citing security concerns.

The state is owed about $27 million in “liquidated damages” for the delays by contractor Walsh/Heery Joint Venture of Pittsburgh — a joint venture by the Walsh construction group of Chicago and the Heery group from Atlanta. The total goes up every day the prison isn’t completed.

Walsh/Heery has argued in correspondence partly made public in an Inquirer right-to-know request that the delay isn’t the contractors’ fault. Rather, they have blamed agents of Hill International, the Philadelphia-based publicly traded project management firm that collected more than $20 million from 2012 to 2017 to manage the project for the state. Hill was effectively succeeded last year by Philadelphia-based Urban Engineers Inc.

The contractors have disputed the state’s right to its $27 million-and-counting clawback demand, and contended to the contrary that it is Pennsylvania taxpayers who should pay the contractors millions more to finish the job. The state has indeed made some payments to facilitate payments to subcontractors, whose complaints of late payments by the contractors were the subject of an investigation by the state Inspector General’s office, which has not made any findings public. General Services says it expects that advance money, plus the millions in late damages, to be repaid by the contractors.

Inmates, many of whom have lived in Graterford for decades, family members, and advocates say they are anxious about leaving Graterford and disrupting familiar routines. So why doesn’t the state wait until Phoenix is done and just walk inmates — many of whom are serving long or lifetime sentences — from Graterford to Phoenix next door?

“Programming and medical needs” make that more complicated than it might look, says Corrections spokeswoman Amy Worden. “It’s impossible to say whether the inmates who are being moved from Graterford to other facilities will be relocated to Phoenix in the future,” she added. Plus, “all inmates have the opportunity to request a transfer to their ‘home’ county as they approach their release date.”

Graterford is Philadelphia’s home state prison. The complex was first built in the 1920s as a work farm. Eventually, it succeeded the old stone Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. John Wetzel, who has been corrections commissioner under both former Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, and current Democratic Gov. Wolf, sees Graterford (and its successor Phoenix) as still the primary prison for Philadelphia-area inmates.

Pennsylvania’s prison population rose sharply in the 2000s and peaked at above 50,000 in the early 2010s, but has fallen in recent years. Despite the drop in demand, Wetzel says, his department went ahead with the construction of Phoenix anyway, in hopes it can get the per-inmate cost down to less than the $90s a day it spends at its most efficient prisons, from more than $120 a day at Graterford and other older facilities. The state’s prison budget is around $2.4 billion a year, more than it spends on anything except public schools, health and human services.

As of Dec. 31, the state says, three-quarters of the state’s 24 prisons have more inmates than their stated “bed capacity,” though the system as a whole — counting the vacancies at Graterford — is 99 percent occupied, with 47,237 inmates.

Once it is cleared for use, Phoenix will have room for 3,884 inmates (plus 150 in the transitional “outside” housing unit), which is more than the 2,648 still held at Graterford as of Dec. 31

“This does not mean every [Phoenix] bed will be filled,” Worden said.

Joseph N. DiStefano, Staff Writer

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