READING, Pa. — Berks County Commissioners have officially restarted the planning process for the eventual construction of a new correctional facility to replace the existing county jail in Bern Township.
Commissioners voted Thursday morning to award a total of $651,490 in three separate service agreements to CGL Companies LLC, a national corrections planning and design firm.
The first agreement provides for an update of a needs assessment conducted by CGL in 2018, as well as the identification of a plan for public participation in the process. This work will cost $84,090.
The second deal will pay the company $431,200 for programming services to determine what the physical features and operations of the facility should look like.
The third agreement will create a financial model as well as a method of supply, at a cost of $136,200.
Specific details of each agreement can be found on the county’s website.
Commissioner Christian Y. Leinbach pointed out that the commissioners had made no decision regarding the proposed facility.
“If we had done that, there would be no need to hire CGL, because it would be a complete waste of dollars to bring them on board,” Leinbach said. “I want to emphasize two things. Firstly, there is no rush to make decisions. Our concern is to make the right decisions in the long term.”
“And to that end, the second element is that I don’t anticipate an actual vote on what build type or size to move forward until late 2023, and possibly even early 2024,” Leinbach said. “This is going to be a process that is open and transparent.”
Commissioner Kevin S. Barnhardt, who chairs the prison board, further explained that the entire project will be a four-year undertaking with significant planning.
“I’ve said it many times, there’s so much more to planning and designing before you put a shovel in the ground,” Barnhardt said. “It’s probably two years of planning and design and almost 18 months to two years for construction.”
“We are currently in the process of empowering a steering committee which will meet every Thursday and will report to the Board of Commissioners and the Prison Board for any action that needs to be taken to the Commissioners or the Prison Board so that we can get things done.”
Barnhardt stressed that the commissioners want to hear from the public as the process moves forward and that this will be done through focus groups and public meetings in the community.
Berks County Judge Arthur E. Grim told commissioners that a fair and effective penal system includes a good-sized jail and is essential to democracy, as well as being an essential measure of community well-being. .
“We recognize that Berks County will soon be presented with the unique opportunity to plan, design and build a new jail that reflects our substantial progress in criminal justice reform and improves safety and justice for all” , said Grim. “We can all agree that a project of this size and cost requires careful and reasonable analysis of information and recommendations from a variety of sources. This should include analyzes and proposals from organizations based on research with no direct interest in the results.”
Two other commentators, Louise Grim (Judge Grim’s wife) and Crystal Kowalski, both Wyomissing residents, said they were concerned about the size of a new prison, prison reform and the avoidance of the mass incarceration.
“Our taxes are at stake here and every bed is very expensive for us,” said Louise Grim. “And not just in terms of the initial cost of this facility, but the ongoing day-to-day cost of operation and maintenance. We have to keep in mind the adage If you build it, they will come.”
Barnhardt responded, saying the county was not set on a specific design or plan.
“People seem to focus on cell counts, but I’ll remind you that in 2018 we had around 950 people incarcerated on average,” he said. “Right now there are about 730 on a rolling month-to-month basis.”
Barnhardt thanked everyone in the criminal justice system for doing the work to deter people from going to jail.
“But part of this study is looking at demographics, trends and population to see how many cells we actually need,” Barnhardt added. “Even if the number may be 730, it does not mean that you are building 730 cells. We need segregation, isolation, discipline, quarantine and women, so you are not just building a prison with 730 beds. There’s a lot of mobility that’s built into a prison; it’s not just about providing beds.”