It looks like State Correction Institute Phoenix, which was supposed to open in Skippack Township, Montgomery County in 2015 to replace the neighboring walled SCI Graterford complex, won’t make its June 30 opening target, either.
State officials who had planned to open the 4,000-inmate, multiple wire-fenced, air-conditioned new prison before the state fiscal year ends on Saturday haven’t disclosed a new target date.
People familiar with the situation say plans to move corrections officers to Phoenix and Graterford in preparation for the inmate transfer were put on hold earlier this month, ending the likelihood the state could open the prison by June 30. That was the date corrections officials set last year after reaching agreement between project managers for the state and officials of Walsh Heery Joint Venture, the Pittsburgh-based general contractor group that has overseen the prison’s construction.
“The move will not happen until the agency is comfortable that a full search of SCI Phoenix is completed and the new facility is deemed secure,” said Amy Worden, spokeswoman for state corrections secretary John Wetzel.
State Labor & Industry officials issued permits for the last of the prison’s cellblocks and other buildings in a flurry of long-delayed approvals in May. “All of the buildings have been issued their certificates of occupancy and have been turned over to the Department of Corrections,” confirmed Troy Thompson, spokesman for the state Department of General Services, which oversees state construction projects.
But General Services staff and employees of Walsh Heery Joint Venture remained “on-site to close out the project,” finishing a list of jobs “that need to be addressed,” Thompson said last week.
Utility buildings are among those ready for service. “There is no electricity issue,” Thompson said. Peco is ready to turn on full power to Phoenix at the state’s request, confirmed Peco spokeswoman Kristina Pappas.
Graterford’s staff of around 1,000 corrections officers and other state workers, plus inmates, families, and other prison visitors have described the move as a stressful time. Hundreds of prisoners, including many long-term inmates, have been accustomed to living in 9 foot by 12 foot cells of their own, but will have to double up with other prisoners in similarly-sized cells at Phoenix.
Also, a dispute over the prison’s final cost to taxpayers is unresolved. Pennsylvania has paid contractors led by Walsh Heery a little over $350 million to build Phoenix, and run up around $50 million in design and other “soft costs.”
But Department of General Services officials contend that Walsh Heery has run up “liquidated damages” of $35,000 a day since failing a November 2015 deadline to complete the prison — which had previously been delayed by wet weather in the summer of 2015 and, for several years before work started, by differences under former Govs. Ed Rendell and Tom Corbett over how to bid the project. Rendell favored a union-labor “project-management agreement.” Corbett rebid the job using a “design-build” program in hopes of accommodating nonunion contractors. But the project managers hired under that arrangement did not meet a series of inspection and opening deadlines.
The state says Walsh Heery now owes Pennsylvania taxpayers more than $30 million — in effect, a partial refund — due to the delay. In correspondence with state officials, Walsh Heery managers blamed the failure to open on the state’s project managers and other outside factors, and insisted it is the state that owes the builders money for the final work. The state has advanced at least $2 million since last spring to pay for additional work at Phoenix, but has said this money should be repaid by the contractors.
Payment issues should be resolved “in the next few weeks,” according to Thompson, the General Services spokesman.