Building Safer County Jails: PA House Members Unveil Legislative Package to Boost Safety and Infrastructure

Prison© OskariVara from Getty Images / Canva

PENNSYLVANIA — In order to provide for community safety and improve working conditions for county corrections officers, several Pennsylvania House members announced they will soon introduce legislation to upgrade county jail security, bolster staffing, and improve county jail infrastructure across Pennsylvania.

The five-bill package will:

  • Provide funding to upgrade security and health infrastructure (including heating and air conditioning) of county jails.
  • Bolster staff by allowing county jails to hire other county corrections officers or state corrections officers to fill vacant shifts.
  • Eliminate parole opportunities for inmates who escape county jails or attempt escape.
  • Require the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to conduct a security audit of county jails that have experienced a jail escape.
  • Create an alert system to be activated in the event of a prison escape.

Discussing the need for wide-ranging and impactful action, Rep. Craig Williams (R-Chester/Delaware) said the state should marshal its resources to help counties secure county jail facilities and help fill staffing shortages.

“Pennsylvanians deserve to know that our county jails are safe and secure, and we must do more to improve working conditions for our county corrections officers to enhance recruitment and fill staffing shortages,” said Williams, who is sponsoring legislation to require that a greater portion of the savings realized from the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) be directed to fund Pennsylvania’s county jails to improve security and promote the safety of inmates and staff.

“The bill I will be introducing will provide needed state resources to assist counties in keeping communities safe, securing county jails, and providing for our county corrections officers who put their lives on the line to keep some of the most dangerous criminals among us in custody.”

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To deal with staffing shortages at county jails, Rep. Sheryl Delozier (R-Cumberland) will introduce legislation to allow county jails to hire off-duty staff from other county jails or the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to bolster county jail staffing shortages where vacant shifts exist.

“A persistent problem facing county jail facilities is the lack of trained staff to undertake the important public safety function of keeping inmates at county jail facilities in custody,” Delozier said. “With having SCI Camp Hill in my district, I know our state corrections officers are hardworking, highly trained, and skilled in securing inmates. We need to break down existing barriers and get government out of the way so those already trained in prison security can assist in bolstering staff complements, keeping inmates in jail, and ensuring our communities are safe from prison escapes.”

With a prison escape in Warren County earlier this year, Rep. Kathy Rapp (R-Warren/Forrest) joined in offering legislation as part of this package to prohibit inmates who have escaped or attempted to escape county jail custody from being eligible for parole to ensure inmates are completely disincentivized from trying to escape county jail custody.

“When inmates face less than significant consequences for escaping or trying to escape custody, sometimes the risk is worth the reward,” Rapp said. “The Legislature can and should use every legislative tool at our disposal to make sure inmates are completely disincentivized from attempting escape. The recent and unacceptable pattern of county jail escapes in the last several months shows now is the perfect time to reevaluate how we are punishing county jail escapes and attempted escapes.”

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Stressing the importance of preventing repeated escapes from county jails, Rep. John Lawrence (R-Chester) said his legislation will require the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to  conduct an investigation into any prison escape at a county prison, with recommendations to prevent future incidents.

“Any jailbreak from a county prison demands a thorough review from experts at the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and the State Police,” said Lawrence. “Repeated escapes from the same county-run facility cannot be tolerated, and failures in county prison administration must be addressed to prevent future catastrophes.”

Recognizing the need for communities to be alerted of a prison escapes at all levels, Rep. Mike Stender (R-Northumberland/Montour) will be introducing legislation to create the Pennsylvania Dangerous Inmate or Escapee Alert System (“DIEAS”) which will assist in protecting impacted communities and capturing dangerous inmates when they escape from incarceration through prompt notification to the general public, appropriate law enforcement, and other public agencies. The DIEAS system will be run by the Pennsylvania State Police.

“Representing communities with close proximity to two federal prisons, in addition to local jails, I understand the need for Pennsylvanians to be promptly, accurately, and well informed about the dangerous situations that can occur when someone escapes from custody,” Stender said. “This simple alert system, like an Amber Alert, will notify local communities when an inmate escapes, their description, and any other useful information that can enhance community safety and the swift recapture of an escaped inmate.”

A link to the co-sponsorship memos for this legislative package can be found here.

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