By VIRGINIA ROSS
NEW CASTLE, Pa. -- The Lawrence County Prison Board is considering resuming the work release program for inmates at the county jail.
During a prison board meeting Wednesday, board members said they would revisit the issue but agreed they would need to examine how the program could be run more efficiently than it had been in the past.
The program was discontinued after it was discovered drugs were being smuggled into the jail by inmates on work release, officials reported.
Mark Schaas, acting warden, recommended limiting the program to inmates who were employed for a period of time before being sentenced, especially those individuals who might risk losing their jobs because of the incarceration. He said the jail could look at putting additional security measures in place to make sure inmates coming into the jail from work are thoroughly searched and isolated from other inmates for a certain period of time.
Board members also discussed conducting random drug tests on inmates on work release. Also, a coordinator would be needed to oversee the program, they said.
Lawrence County Common Pleas Court Judge Dominic Motto, a member of the prison board, said he advocates resuming the program for sentencing purposes.
"There are times when, during sentencing, you know an individual should be incarcerated, but you don't sentence him to jail because he could lose his job," he said. "But it's a much better option to incarcerate him and allow him to continue working than to place him on house arrest, for example. I would like to see [work release] back in place."
Discontinuation of the work release program is one of many issues arising at the jail over the past two years.
Officials say most of the problems occurred under the management of former warden Mark Fellows, who, facing the threat of termination, resigned in April.
Schaas, who was deputy warden, was named acting warden after Fellows resigned. County officials said they are interviewing candidates to replace Fellows.
Past problems at the jail have included inmate assaults, drug smuggling, fires and an increased number of inmates going to the hospital, which contributed to higher medical bills. Also, a suicide and an inmate death resulting from an apparent drug overdose were reported, they said.
Most recently, the state Department of Corrections cited many deficiencies in a report that was issued to the county following an inspection at the jail in June. On Wednesday, prison board members said they plan next week to begin preparing a plan of action to correct those issues. The action plan is to be submitted to the state.
Board members said the state cited the jail for, among other concerns, not having sufficient restroom facilities for inmates and for not compensating inmates for work they do at the jail. Schaas said many efforts have already begun to correct these deficiencies.