HARRISBURG — Early next year, for the first time in its history, Pennsylvania plans to contract with another state or states to board as many as 2,000 convicted criminals.
The reason is simple and troubling: The number of inmates in Pennsylvania’s 27 prisons is growing faster than the state can build new ones.
The inmates who will be transferred have not been picked, but the Corrections Department said they will be males who have no mental-health, behavioral or serious medical conditions that require special attention.
“Some inmates already are volunteering,” said department spokeswoman Susan McNaughton.
McNaughton said inmates’ relationships with families and friends are an important consideration, and the department plans to make video conferencing available for transferees who want to stay in touch. Conversely, inmates who have received the fewest visits during their incarceration in Pennsylvania may be more likely to be transferred, she said.
The more than 210 men on Pennsylvania’s death row are unlikely candidates for transfers because of the elaborate security precautions required when moving them.
None of the six states under consideration — Kansas, Nevada, Oklahoma, Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia — shares a border with Pennsylvania.
Twenty years ago, during the Camp Hill prison riot, Pennsylvania transferred hundreds of inmates to federal prisons across the country on an emergency basis and some transfers lasted for years. But this is the first time the state will contract with other states to board prisoners, McNaughton said.
Tom Beauclair, deputy director of the Justice Department’s National Institute of Corrections in Washington, said interstate sharing of prison space is common, although 2,000 is a large number to transfer at once.
State Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard tentatively plans to assign at least one member of his staff to accompany the Pennsylvania inmates and act as a monitor to ensure they are treated humanely and receive proper services — a step Beauclair said some other states have taken as a safeguard against potential litigation.
“You want to make sure that you are getting what you pay for,” Beauclair said.
Pennsylvania’s prison overcrowding was the focus of a state Senate hearing last week in Harrisburg.
More than 51,000 inmates — more than Harrisburg has residents — are overflowing from a system designed to hold fewer than 44,000, with makeshift living quarters inside the prison compounds and hundreds of county jail cells taking up the slack. In 2000, the inmate population was fewer than 37,000.
Major causes for the admissions spike include the ongoing “war on drugs” that began in the late ’70s; mandatory sentences passed under then-Gov. Tom Ridge in the late 1990s; and a two-month moratorium on parole that Gov. Ed Rendell ordered last year following the fatal shootings of two Philadelphia police officers.
Prison construction is the most expensive option for taxpayers. The four prisons now on the drawing board — two on the grounds of Graterford prison in Montgomery County, one at Rockview prison in Centre County and one in Fayette County — are expected to make available 8,000 beds by 2013 at a cost of about $800 million.
Beard said nonviolent offenders, mostly people convicted of property and drug crimes, account for more than half of the admissions surge. He and other speakers advocated changes to divert more of those people into community programs and reduce the number of parolees returned to prison for minor “technical” violations.
Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, the Montgomery County Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and presided over the hearing, listened with a sympathetic ear.
“Being smart on crime is not soft on crime,” Greenleaf said afterward.