PA prisons exceed capacity, though population shrinks

Pennsylvania is among 18 states with prison populations swollen beyond capacity, according to a new report by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Right now, Pennsylvania is at nearly 107 percent of capacity, with 50,360 inmates in its jurisdiction, according to the state’s Department of Corrections. Capacity is 47,096 inmates.

The most tightly-packed facility is SCI–Huntingdon at 119.1 percent of its capacity, based on population numbers from Aug. 31. Close behind is SCI–Smithfield at 118.6 percent of capacity and SCI–Forest at 117.5 percent capacity.

Only eight institutions out of 32 state and contract facilities are below capacity. Most just barely.

That said, the state’s overall population is down modestly. Compared to December 2013, the federal report notes a decline of 1.3 percent based on year-end population for 2014.

Broken down by gender, we see that the male population shrunk 1.7 percent. But the state’s female population rose by 3.6 percent.

Twenty-three other states, along with the federal system, saw decreases. Most of those saw bigger decreases than Pennsylvania, led by Mississippi, which far outpaced the whole crowd.

From the BJS report:

Mississippi held 3,200 fewer prison inmates at year-end 2014 (down 15 percent from 2013), which resulted from new policies that encourage supervision of nonviolent offenders in the community instead of in prison.

The Texas prison population, the second largest in the United States with 166,000 inmates at year-end 2014, declined by 2,200 prisoners (down 1 percent) from year-end 2013 (168,300). Louisiana, Georgia, and New York also had modest declines that amounted to between 1,000 and 1,300 fewer prisoners for each jurisdiction in 2014 than in 2013.

Last year, 20,084 inmates were admitted to Pennsylvania prisons, and 20,555 inmates were released, most with conditions, meaning they could be back if they violate those terms, according to the federal report.

Earlier this year, John Wetzel, Pennsylvania’s secretary of corrections, noted progress in the state’s recidivism rates. Three measures used to tell how likely inmates are to return to prison were all down.

Wetzel attributed the positive trend to efforts to keep parole violators out of prison, reduce the number of low-level offenders going to prison and to expand non-prison punishment for drug and alcohol offenses.

At year end, Pennsylvania had 50,756 inmates in its jurisdiction (including nearly 900 state inmates in county jails). Since then, the population has continued to shrink.

Keeping one inmate incarcerated costs Pennsylvania taxpayers roughly $36,600 per year. Elderly and terminally ill inmates can cost the state much more.

Nationwide, more than 1.5 million people are incarcerated in the United States.

Reach Jeffrey Benzing at 412-315-0265 or at jbenzing@publicsource.org. Follow him on Twitter @jabenzing.