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State corrections department won't release York County Prison report

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch

A report recommending changes at York County Prison will remain confidential, per a Nov. 26 ruling by the state Department of Corrections.

In response to a Right-To-Know request for a redacted copy of the report, Andrew Filkosky, the department's open records officer, said the request had been denied under several Right-To-Know Law exemptions dealing with security and safety.

Consultants from the department created the 2017 report at the request of county officials. An earlier Right-to-Know Law request for the report, filed with York County officials, also was denied.

Donald Reihart, solicitor for the York County Prison Board, said the report details recommendations for preventing prison break-outs and break-ins, minimizing injuries to staff and inmates in the event of a crisis situation, changes in staff organization and improving communication between staff members, among other things.

Reihart said the only reason the report is being withheld is for the protection of society, and Warden Clair Doll agreed.

York County Prison Warden Clair Doll speaks during a Prison Board Meeting at York County Prison in Springettsbury Township, Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

"We want to be as transparent as possible," Doll said. "It becomes difficult when what we would release could put staff, inmates and the public in harm's way."

Between 2013 and 2017, staff overtime costs at the prison nearly doubled. The prison board invited officials from the state Department of Corrections to serve as consultants and provide recommendations for changes after former Warden Mary Sabol retired in early 2017.

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said the state Office of Open Records and the courts give wide latitude to prison officials to make determinations about safety and security with regard to releasing information to the public, and there is some information that should not be released.

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But, she added, there may be some information in the department's report, however limited, that doesn't pose a security risk and that the public would be interested in knowing. Melewsky said the release of such information would provide some level of access and accountability for York County citizens.

Attorney Donald Reihart at his office in Springettsbury Township, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Reihart said one of his concerns is that if the consultant's report is released, other prisons in Pennsylvania will be less likely to ask for outside help out of fear that sensitive security information would end up in the wrong hands, such as dangerous criminals inside the prison.

If prison administrators are uneasy about asking for outside help, Doll said, progress and reform will be more difficult to achieve in the future.

The York County preliminary 2019 budget lists $63.6 million for York County Prison, nearly 5 percent more than the forecast final 2018 costs of $61.8 million. The amount originally budgeted for 2018 was $60.6 million.

York County spokesman Mark Walters said the increase in costs is based in part on the implementation of the recommendations in the Department of Corrections report.

Other costs that will impact the budget include the recent union contract for prison staff, which included wage increases and health care costs, and medical care contracts for inmates. The budget increase also reflects adjustments for inflation, Walters said.

"There's been a lot of things initiated that I think in the long run will save taxpayer dollars," said Doug Hoke, York County commissioner and president of the prison board.

One of the changes implemented at the prison has been a shift toward unit management.

In unit management, the prison is compartmentalized into smaller, self-contained areas, with the unit manager serving as a "miniature warden," supervising a core staff that works with the same prisoners every day.

Doll said that previously, each cell block was assigned three officers. After restructuring, each cell block has one sergeant and two officers.