Correctional officer shortage forces lockdown at Pa. county jail
In March, the prison board placed the jail in a state of emergency due to low staffing levels and two top leaders retiring
By Justin Strawser
The Daily Item
COAL TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Staff shortages at the Northumberland County Jail in Coal Township led to an 18-hour lockdown over the weekend.
Warden Tom Reisinger said the "modified operations" went from 2 p.m. Saturday until 8 a.m. Sunday due to only having 35 full-time and two part-time employees to cover shifts. The staff level should be at 84, he said.
"If I ever come to the situation where we'll have staff shortage for any amount of time, I will always do what is in the best interest of the staff and inmates and institutional security," said Reisinger. "We knew we were going to be short on the weekend, and I did everything I could do to cover the open posts, but inevitably we couldn't."
The prison board in March placed the jail in a state of emergency due to low staffing levels and two top leaders, including former Warden Bruce Kovach, retiring.
In the modified operations, inmates are locked in their cells for 18 hours. While inmate movement is restricted, Reisinger said pre-scheduled visitations were not canceled and there was no disruption in food service. Reisinger said he spoke with each inmate block in a town hall-style manner and explained the situation, authored a memorandum and placed the document in each cell to avoid miscommunications about the action.
"I told the inmates that we have a situation negatively affecting the jail and it had nothing to do with inmate issues or misconduct," he said. "I'm doing everything I can do to correct it. We returned to normal operations on Sunday with no incident."
Reisinger said he allowed visitation to continue and completed recreation by 2 p.m. Saturday because it wasn't the inmate's fault for the lockdown.
There were 192 inmates over the weekend. The maximum capacity is 284, said Reisinger.
Reisinger said he has been discussing it with the prison board members every day and has gone on a $4,000 recruiting campaign. He placed advertisements in newspapers, radio, television, digital media, social media, and billboard. Some staff this week have been interviewed and hired as a direct result of the campaign.
Reisinger said the situation is difficult because the jail is competing with other jobs and industries. The starting wage for a correctional officer at the jail if $14.50 an hour.
"Even though we are experiencing staff shortage and we're doing all we can recruitment wise, I never met a more dedicated hard working group of correctional officers that care," he said. "I am extremely proud of them. They work tremendous amounts of overtime."
Commissioner Chairman Sam Schiccatano, a member of the prison board, said the warden's proposal to lockdown was in the best interest of the inmates and correctional officers.
"It was the right decision," said Schiccatano. "We will continue to do whatever the warden feels is the safest approach for the jail."
The situation is being discussed and suggestions are being made among board members and jail staff. The next prison board meeting is at 11 a.m. July 6 at the administration center, 399 Stadium Drive, Sunbury.
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