HARRISBURG — The state Department of Corrections is on track to spend $108 million in overtime by the end of the fiscal year in June, even as the state prison population has declined at a historic rate, Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said at a Monday budget hearing.

The state prison’s overtime bill is expected to end the fiscal year up almost $15 million. The number of inmates, which is expected to continue to decline, fell by 1,068 in 2018 — the biggest one-year drop ever, according to the Department of Corrections.

At the end of the year, there were 47,370 state prison inmates, down from 51,512 inmates five years ago.

The spike in OT costs, despite the drop in population, was due to a pair of “extraordinary events” — the opening of SCI Phoenix and the system-wide lockdown prompted by concerns about drugs being smuggled into the state prisons, Wetzel said.

The state opened its newest prison — SCI Phoenix in Montgomery County — in June. Moving 2,500 inmates into that new facility cost the Department of Corrections $11.4 million in overtime costs, Wetzel said. In late August, the entire state prison system was placed on lockdown for almost two weeks after 40 prison employees were sickened by exposure to drugs smuggled into the system, Wetzel said.

The lockdown added another $4.6 million in overtime, he said.

Without those two incidents, the Corrections’ overtime bill would have been about the same as prior year, Wetzel said. As a result, the Department of Corrections is budgeting only $90 million for overtime costs in 2019-20, he said.

Despite the drop in inmate population, there are no plans to close any more prisons in the coming fiscal year, Wetzel said.

In 2017, state officials warned that five prisons were possible targets for closing, including Frackville in Schuylkill County; Mercer in Mercer County; Pittsburgh, Allegheny County; Retreat in Luzerne County; and Waymart in Wayne County. Only the Pittsburgh prison closed in 2017.

But “anxiety remains” in communities near the other prisons included on that watch list, said Republican state Rep. Jonathan Fritz of Wayne County.

As criminal justice reforms translate into fewer people behind bars, Wetzel said prison officials will have to continue to consider when and whether more prisons should close.

In the meantime, the state has moved to eliminate vacancies in the state prisons by taking inmates from other states, Wetzel said. Pennsylvania’s state prisons are now housing 300 inmates from Delaware, he said. The Department of Corrections expects to get $13 million in revenue under the deal, he said.

Wetzel said the prison system could probably handle “a couple hundred” more out-of-state prisoners if another state comes forward looking for a similar deal.

The state had previously housed inmates from Vermont and Republican state Rep. John Lawrence of Chester County asked Wetzel to explain why the Department of Corrections had been charging Vermont less to house each of the 200 inmates from that state than it’s charging Delaware.

Lawrence said Delaware is paying $42,000 per inmate while Vermont was being charged $26,000 per inmate.

“Why were we under-charging Vermont?” he asked.

Wetzel said the Delaware inmates are receiving all of the same educational, vocational and other programming offered to Pennsylvania inmates. The deal with Vermont only provided the inmates with housing and food, he said.

Vermont opted to transfer its prisoners to Mississippi last fall after complaints from inmates and prison advocates.

Wetzel said he doubts the inmates will like their time in Mississippi any more than they liked being in Pennsylvania.

“Having them come here and sit around idle, that was a bad strategy,” he said.

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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