York County Prison inmate population hits 10-year low

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch

The average inmate population at York County Prison has reached a 10-year low after a consistent downward trend for the past two years.

Much of that reduction is due to the Stepping Up Initiative, a countywide effort to identify and divert individuals with serious mental health concerns away from jail and into treatment, said York County Prison Warden Clair Doll.

The average daily inmate population in 2009 was 1,584. Over the past 10 years, that number reached as high as 1,646, in 2013, but it never fell below 1,500 until last year, according to Doll.

The 2018 average was 1,364 inmates, and for the first four months of 2019, the average was 1,278 inmates.

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

In addition to benefits for society and for individuals, having fewer inmates at York County Prison means more vacant space, and more vacant space means the county can leverage that property for other uses.

There are plans in the works to potentially relocate the York County Coroner's Office to one of those vacant areas as well as building a long-anticipated new morgue.

The prison board is also looking at the feasibility of moving a magisterial district judge office to the prison.

'They're not bad people': April Billet-Barclay, director of probation services for the county, said local officials have been boosting efforts to divert people from incarceration when possible.

"The majority of people that enter the criminal justice system are in the system because of histories of trauma, drug addiction, mental illness," she said. "You know, they’re not bad people."

Police officers throughout the county have received specialized, 40-hour training courses as part of the county's Crisis Intervention Team, Billet-Barclay said.

Officers learn skills to identify when a person is in a mental health crisis and to verbally de-escalate a situation in an effort to calm the individual and provide treatment. 

Instead of being arrested and taken to jail, that person in crisis may end up at the hospital, where they'll see a doctor and have an opportunity to receive treatment.

York County Prison in Springettsbury Township, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016.

This is key for keeping those folks out of the criminal justice system, Billet-Barclay said.

"Jail doesn’t rehabilitate people," she said. "Even at the national level, you’ll see that criminal justice reform is one of the very few bipartisan subjects or topics because we’ve learned over the years that putting people in jail doesn’t make them better."

More:York County considers $2.2M plan to build new morgue at prison

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When a defendant is dealing with drug or alcohol addiction or with a mental health crisis, the county can divert that person into one of several wellness courts.

There's a heroin court, a DUI court and courts for veterans, general drug addiction and mental health.

Wellness courts offer supervised treatment programs outside a jail environment, which eases the financial burden on the county and provides a better chance of success for participants, Billet-Barclay said.

But treatment for drug and alcohol problems is only one variable in a former inmate's success reintegrating into the community. 

No matter how long someone has been locked up, making sure they have a job, a place to live and something to contribute to society once they're released is vital, said York County Commissioner Doug Hoke, president of the York County Prison Board.

"Having help and getting back into the community, being a productive force, is so important for people not getting back into any activity that would put them back in jail," Hoke said.

To help people find jobs, the York County Reentry Coalition sponsors Second Chance job fairs, where former inmates can meet prospective employers at the fair, and may even be interviewed on the spot.

The next Second Chance job fair is Wednesday, June 12, at the York County administration building in York City.

More:Job fair for ex-inmates to be held June 12 in York City

More:York County Prison could be new home for Springetts district judge office

If you go: The Second Chance job fair will be held from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Wednesday, June 12, on the third floor of the York County Administrative Center, 28. E. Market St. in York City.

The event is free, but registration is required, and the deadline to register is Tuesday, June 11. To register, contact Joan Shindel at jshindel@pa.gov or call 717-771-4407 ext. 228.