MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Pa. (CBS) – It’s been one delay after another for SCI Phoenix, the state prison that is to replace Graterford in Montgomery County. But as the prison nears completion KYW Suburban Bureau Chief Jim Melwert got a behind-the-scenes look.
Once it finally opens, SCI Phoenix will house about 4,000 inmates, but with new technology and more efficient staffing, Penna department of Corrections secretary John Wetzel says compared to Graterford, SCI Phoenix will save tax payers about 10-million dollars a year:
“But more importantly, it has lots of program space, and what we know about inmates who come in today is they’re not educated.”
About 40 percent he says don’t have a high school diploma.
“They also have significant treatment needs, about a third are mentally ill, and three-quarters have some kind of addiction issue, so this prison is really built for modern inmates.”
Along with modern technology. Gone are the old lock and key, which are still in use at Graterford. They’re replaced by electronic, centrally monitored cell doors and gates, cameras, and sensors.
The perimeter of SCI Phoenix is surrounded by a double ring of fences with razor wire, cameras and sensors. Lieutenant Walter Grunder:
“You can basically throw a rope over a 30-foot wall and climb over it, but with this, gives us a much more accurate picture of the facility and the perimeter.”
“Out lighting is much better here because we don’t have the shadows and nooks and crannies of the wall.”
Prison superintendent Cynthia Link, who says the new SCI Phoenix is designed to take on the modern-day inmate:
“We have to take a look at people, what drives their behavior, what gets them into the situations they end up and then try to address that so that they’re making better choices.”
The new prison is ADA compliant. Standing in the middle of the new general population wing, superintendent Cynthia Link says, Unlike Graterford, SCI Phoenix has handicapped accessible cells:
“So if you are a wheel chair bound person at Graterford, you’re living in the infirmary. Here you could actually live in the housing unit, you can go to the regular dining room, you’re not being fed in your hospital room.”
Link also says there are areas in the prison where fathers will be able to interact with children when they visit, also a video link where families who may have a loved in a state prison on the other side of the state could do virtual visits.
That is the life for most inmates, at least. But, Like Graterford, SCI Phoenix will have RHU, restricted housing unit, similar to the old solitary confinement, for example anyone who breaks the rules in general population:
“Some other reason we would put inmates in this unit is if they are a capital case inmate — if they’ve been given the death sentence. Or if we have an inmate that would say be high-profile and we want to provide further protection or security for them.”
But rather than locking someone away alone, with no stimulation, superintendent Link says there is the carrot or the stick approach:
“We’re also looking at incentivizing positive behavior while they’re within this kind of unit. So if you’re quiet and you’re not banging on your door and you’re following the officer’s order, you could earn the use of your tablet, you could earn the use different kinds of things like your radio. Because we’re trying to help people gain control of their behavior, make better decisions, make more sound decisions.”
It has not been smooth sailing as the project that started under the Rendell administration, with a $400 million price tag, is already two years overdue. After the most recent delay the goal is to have inmates in by next summer.