New prison being built at Graterford

Construction is underway adjacent to Graterford for a new state correctional institution. The new construction will consist of two main facilities - named Phoenix East and Phoenix West - as well as a small women's transitional facility. Staff photo by J. Finneran

Skippack Township – Following a four year delay, construction in currently underway for a new State Correctional Institution (SCI) being erected adjacent to the location of the Graterford (SCI) in Skippack.

According to Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Press Secretary Susan McNaughton the construction had been initially held up because of labor agreement problems during the Rendell administration, but those issues were finally resolved by Governor Corbett.

“The new facility will technically be two prisons,” said McNaughton during a phone interview from her office in Mechanicsburg. “There will be two buildings – Phoenix East and Phoenix West.”

Phoenix East and Phoenix West, which will have a fence perimeter instead of solid walls, will jointly house approximately 4000 inmates, including capital offenders. Also being constructed is a yet-to-be-named smaller transitional facility (with a capacity of 200 inmates) for female inmates who are serving out the tail end of their sentences.

McNaughton said that keeping a prison operational at the Graterford location is ideal for the State of Pennsylvania because of the costs incurred by transporting inmates. A large number of Pennsylvania’s prisoners are from the Philadelphia area, and must go through the legal process in the city, but are often transported to and from prisons located across the state - such as SCI Greene in Waynesburg, PA, which is located in Greene County in western Pennsylvania.

According to Troy Thompson, the Spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of General Services, the existing Graterford facility, built in 1929 as a replacement for Eastern State Penitentiary and currently housing 3885 inmates, will be ‘mothballed’ upon the new prison’s opening. This means that the old prison will be decommissioned with no plans for future use, yet remain standing and maintained.

“The cost of demolition is not cost effective for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania or the Department of Corrections,” said Thompson. “The intention is to provide the lowest level of maintenance needed to maintain the structural integrity of the (mothballed) facility in a manner that is cost effective for the departments overall operational needs.”

The examples Thompson offered when surmising the purpose of this maintenance included providing the minimal amount of heating needed to prevent pipes from freezing and upkeep of the roof to ensure that no holes develop.

McNaughton said that the costs which would be incurred by maintaining Graterford as a fully operational facility while also having to retrofit it for modern needs would be very expensive. Additionally, building a new facility would make the staff much safer as Graterford was built with “lots of add-ons that did not provide the best sight lines for the staff to monitor the facility”. This is not to be a problem with the Phoenix East and Phoenix West facilities, as each were designed using input received from current Graterford staff (Michael Wenerowicz, Superintendent of the SCI at Graterford, was contacted with questions about this co-operative design, but not answered at the time of this article’s filing).

McNaughton expects that the new prison will operate with the same number of employees which operate Graterford, and that the prison population will remain comparable to the current level. The intentions are that the staff and inmates will simply move into to the new facilities once construction has been completed.

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