MIFFLINTOWN - Despite a very vocal swell of public opposition, the Juniata County Commissioners voted unanimously on Tuesday to begin the process of closing the county's prison.
It was standing room only at the meeting, which was attended by prison guards, sheriff's deputies, law enforcement, court officials, attorneys and concerned citizens.
There is no set timeline on when the prison will close and after the meeting adjourned Commissioner Teresa O'Neal, who has been serving as acting warden, said she would like to meet with prison personnel Tuesday afternoon to discuss the next step. The prison employs 21 full and part-time workers.
President Judge Kathy Morrow, left, expresses her concerns with closing the Juniata County Prison during the Juniata County Commissioners board meeting Tuesday morning in Mifflintown.
The commissioners voted on a memorandum of understanding with the two unions representing workers at the prison. Under the agreement, eligible employees would receive COBRA benefits and severance pay.
"This certainly won't happen overnight," O'Neal said, which was reiterated by Commissioners Jeffrey Zimmerman and Bob Reynolds.
Although closing the prison may take some time, effective immediately the county will not be housing new inmates.
The Commissioners also voted unanimously on Tuesday to house inmates at the Mifflin County Correctional Facility, pending approval by the solicitors of the contract.
Under the agreement between Mifflin County, inmates will be housed at a cost of $55 per day per inmate. That rate will increase to $62 per day in 2013, $65 in 2014, $68 in 2015 and $70 in 2016. There is a clause built into the contract that allows Juniata County to rescind the agreement with one year's notice if the county decides to renovate the existing prison or build a new one.
"Nothing we did today rules out renovating or building a new facility," Reynolds said.
However, O'Neal said that building a new correctional facility could take years of planning, citing the six years it took Centre County to build their facility near Rockview State Correctional Facility.
Prior to the vote on closing the prison, several people voiced concerns and additional petitions were presented to the board in opposition of closing the prison.
President Judge Kathy Morrow said on any given miscellaneous court day, there could be as many as 22 inmates scheduled to appear before the court, which could be a safety issue if the Sheriff's Department does not have a place to house them before and after court proceedings.
Morrow also expressed concerns in transporting that many inmates, which could require several trips by sheriff's deputies, assuming the county were to purchase a van for the Sheriff's Department.
Attorney Nancy Searer, who spoke during the town hall meeting in May, again reiterated that the Bar Association was opposed to closing the prison.
Searer also said she was concerned the inmates may not have access to work release in Mifflin County.
The commissioners said eligible Juniata County inmates would have access to work release.
During the very same town hall meeting in May, O'Neal cited serious safety and security concerns at the prison, but has since been reluctant to give details about those issues.
In addition, after the meeting adjourned Tuesday, commissioners were reminded that the Juniata County Prison Board voted in a 4-3 decision to have cost benefit analysis done by an independent person on each of the seven possible options for the prison. To date, only one of the possible options has been researched for the purposes of cost benefit analysis. Using data from 2011, the analysis pointed to an estimated $617,000 in annual savings, based on the most recent $1.4 million budget.