Graterford prison replacement, SCI Phoenix, is ‘state-of-the-art’ facility

Fences surrounding the new SCI Phoenix, set to replace Graterford State Prison, are equipped with technology that alerts guards to anyone walking between the fences. A system is also in place to notify guards if the fences are tampered with.
Fences surrounding the new SCI Phoenix, set to replace Graterford State Prison, are equipped with technology that alerts guards to anyone walking between the fences. A system is also in place to notify guards if the fences are tampered with. Marian Dennis – Digital First Media

SKIPPACK >> The stony, towering walls of Graterford State Prison that secure more than 3,000 inmates will soon be replaced with a high-tech, newer version.

The prison, which was constructed in the 1920s, will soon be closing down for a newly constructed prison that officials say will better serve the purposes intended for a correctional facility.

“We’re really very excited to assume this building. We really believe that this is going to function so much better than Graterford. Graterford is old and falling apart. It was built in 1929 and has had hard use all of those years. So we’re moving to a facility that is brand new, that is state-of-the-art,” said Graterford Superintendant Cynthia Link.

The $350 million, 3,422-bed SCI Phoenix Prison is the largest single contract ever issued by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania consisting of 1 million square feet, according to Heery International, the design-builder for the prison. It will include two male facilities, named Phoenix East and Phoenix West, as well as a separate Female Transitional Unit.

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SCI Phoenix prison is slated to replace Graterford State Prison by summer of 2018. Inmates and employees will be transferred to the new prison once the building is completed.

As the new prison is constructed, new and improved security measures are at the forefront of the effort. State Correctional Institution Phoenix will have a new type of security fence that will be a significant upgrade from Graterford’s 34-foot concrete wall.

“At Graterford we have a 30-foot wall. Over here we have what we call an electronic fence detection system,” explained Walter Grunder, critical incident manager. “In between the two fences is a system that basically detects weight. So if somebody were to make it in between the fences, it would detect the weight here and it would also set off an alarm. We would be able to respond to that alarm, find out who or what was in between the fence using cameras and staff.”

The fences along the prison are covered at the top and bottom with razor wire and are also equipped with a detection system that would alert guards stationed in the control room if the fence was cut or otherwise manipulated. In addition to the technological advances, officials said fences are a better alternative to walls like the one at Graterford, because they allow for better visibility, an aspect that has been applied to other parts of the prison as well.

Living quarters in each wing are broken up into smaller sections and individual showers that are visible from the center of the wing have been built to make monitoring inmates easier.

“This is where your general population, normal inmate will live. The building is divided into two separate wings. It’s built to hold 282 inmates. All the cells are electronic and all the cells have an intercom system in them so the officer can communicate with the inmates,” explained Grunder. “Everything is monitored by video and we control pretty much everything in here by computer.”

The set up of the living quarters is not only meant to make inmates and guards more secure, but also to improve the inmates’ quality of life, according to Link.

“The big difference is that there are two football fields end to end at Graterford. This is remarkably different. We should be able to control movement but also quality of life improves because the noise levels go down. Patterns of living slow down a little bit,” explained Link. “No longer do I have 12 guys taking a shower in one place. Everybody has a shower stall. So that’s an improvement in their quality of life ... It makes it easier on all of us. It’s easier to monitor because I can look over and see there’s your feet, there’s your head. Everything’s OK in there.”

The new prison will also include handicapped cells, which Link says were not available at Graterford.

Link added that improving the quality of life for inmates is paramount to having a prison that works the way it’s intended.

“We’re looking at shorter sanctions and incentivizing good behavior while within this type of unit,” Link said of the restricted housing unit of the new prison. “So if you’re not banging on your door and you’re following the officer’s order, you could possibly earn the use of your tablet. We’re trying to help people gain control of their behavior, make better decisions, make more sound decisions and understand that they are part of a community.”

In addition to many other new additions, SCI Phoenix will also include several features aimed at visitors, including an area designated for children.

“We’ve dedicated space for children. At Graterford, having kids come to the visiting room was like an afterthought,” said Link. “We’ve had to be creative in how we’ve made that space kid-friendly. In this institution, we’re starting out with the opportunity to be kid-friendly.”

A new video-calling feature at the prison will also allow visitors to communicate with inmates that are housed in a different prison that may be farther than they are willing or able to travel.