Like the hostess of a dinner party, Kathy Washko must try to configure a harmonious seating chart for 700 people with clashing personalities, histories and agendas.
But her choices can mean the difference between life and death because her “guests” are Luzerne County prison inmates increasingly involved in serious crimes and feuds with each other.
Competing gang members and heroin users and dealers who had a falling out on the streets are suddenly planted under the same roof, putting the pressure on Washko to anticipate problems and separate those who hate each other as well as those who want to be together to plot misdeeds.
Her options to move people are limited in the overcrowded complex, and each adjustment has a ripple effect.
Washko, the prison’s classification specialist, feels like she’s playing her childhood puzzle game with numbered tiles and one empty space in a frame, aiming to get them in sequential order.
“That’s my job. I just keep moving those little squares around,” said Washko, a lifelong Wyoming Valley resident who has worked at the prison for nearly eight years.
The mission becomes more daunting because certain inmates can’t be around the general population, including sex offenders and juveniles sentenced as adults who are in “protective custody,” or PC in prison lingo.
“You have to be careful when you’re moving those squares around because if one of them touches a PC inmate, you would have a potential beating or even death,” said county Correctional Services Division Head J. Allen Nesbitt.
The atmosphere in the county prison on Water Street in Wilkes-Barre has markedly changed in recent years, prison officials agree.
“What’s happening now, is we have a more serious, violent inmate for the most part in the main jail,” said prison Deputy Warden James Larson, who has worked in the facility more than 36 years.
“The change is just unbelievable, as is the total turnaround in the last couple of years in this valley,” he said.
The prison is a microcosm of county neighborhoods experiencing increasing murders, armed robberies and “heavy drug deals,” Larson said.
“I don’t think it can be stressed enough how bad the area is now, particularly in the heroin community,” Larson said.
Gangs have increased because “they’re all vying for the drug trade,” he said.
“The violence is about the territory and control, and we get those competing groups in here,” he said.
Every block in the jail contains a representative of a predominate gang, Larson said, rattling off the Bloods, Latin Kings, Crips and others.
“We have them all,” Nesbitt said.
Relief isn’t expected because gangs are drawn to the area’s low cost of living, proximity to New York and Philadelphia and ripe market of users willing to pay more for drugs than city customers, Washko said.
“It’s a booming business here, so of course they all want to locate here. And they all want to run the show. That’s why they’re fighting with each other,” she said.
Most of the local “homegrown” inmates are the addicted ones who get caught for possession or resorting to theft to pay for their habits, Larson said.
“The circle is just spinning like crazy, and we will never be out of business,” Washko said.
Several former county inmates recently recognized and approached Larson when he and Nesbitt went to a local hot dog place for lunch and made it clear they don’t want to return, Larson said.
“We’re not going back with them guys,” one said, referring to the more vicious prison population.
The “old-timers” didn’t have to worry about their safety if they were locked up, Larson said.
“Now they don’t want to deal with this at all because it’s a younger, more violent group,” Larson said.
“It’s a scarier place now,” Washko said.
Larson shakes his head when prison retirees try to relate to his job today.
“They knew basic corrections, but they don’t know this inmate. This is different,” Larson said.
While institutional knowledge and experience help, Larson said he and his colleagues have been forced to keep up with sociological changes and popular culture to decipher their new subjects.
“You need to know what makes them tick and who’s who and who’s with what group and what their motivations are,” Larson said. “You have to consider things that you never had to consider before, and it’s a big chess game with only so much room to work with.”
Prison workers have become well-versed on the markings, hand gestures, codes and other gang signs, Larson said. Some incoming inmates openly claim their gang affiliation out of pride or a fear they’ll be lodged with a rival.
Washko never imagined she’d be tracking gangs here and said the public overall is largely unaware of the severity.
“It’s hard to grasp when you have grown up in this area. It is really tough to comprehend how this happened to us just in a few years. How did we become Rikers (Island) in a few years?” Washko said.
These younger “gang-bangers” often have a fierce, self-centered attitude because they don’t expect to live past their 20s, Nesbitt said.
“This crowd is all about right now, taking advantage of it and moving ahead right now. That’s just a different subculture we need to deal with,” Nesbitt said.
The scene has played out many times in Washko’s office: a younger, new inmate — often a drug addict — enters with a deer-in-the-headlights expression.
“They’ve never been in trouble in their life. They’ve never seen the inside of a jail. As soon as their butt hits the chair, they start crying,” she says.
She labels these inmates as “recruits” who are susceptible to control by gangs inside the prison.
“They do that immediately,” Larson said of gang recruiting.
Waskho tries to keep these vulnerable inmates away from gang members if she can find an empty spot.
The nearby minimal offender’s building, which is more of a dormitory setting, is an option, but only for those with nonviolent offenses.
More severe crimes are causing many inmates to become ingrained because their cases take longer to adjudicate or they can’t afford bail, she said.
Some don’t realize the county prison houses offenders charged with murders and other serious crimes that will send them to state prisons after they are sentenced, Washko said.
A typical bail for a county inmate used to be about $25,000, but $100,000 bails have become “commonplace,” she said.
“As a result, we don’t have the turnover we had before. They stay much longer and kind of get entrenched,” she said.
Inmates who know the lay of the land are even more likely to “wheel and deal” behind bars, Nesbitt said.
Prison employees have become detectives sniffing out intelligence and suspicious activity that may warrant relocations.
Washko often receives letters from multiple inmates who coincidentally seek transfer to the same block, citing the visitation schedule and other excuses.
“If everybody suddenly wants to go to block five, there’s something happening on five. Then we’ll start spreading them out all over the place because that’s a bad sign,” Washko said.
Inmates sometimes inform Washko they’re afraid to stay in a particular spot because of bad blood with someone housed there.
“You’d be amazed how many of the addicts have ripped off their dealers, and it has never occurred to them that they might all end up here in the same place,” she said.
She’s always on guard for ulterior motives, particularly with “frequent fliers who know how to get what they want.”
“They’re criminals. They think like criminals. They manipulate like criminals,” she said.
Moves aren’t intended to cater to personal preferences, Larson said. A federal standard requires prisons to remove someone from a potential dangerous situation if they have suspicions a fight or assault may occur, he said.
“Who knows how many times we’ve saved lives here?” Nesbitt said.
Washko usually receives the same greeting when she enters the prison in the morning — guards reminding her there’s not enough room to house the latest arrivals.
The main prison was designed to hold 505 inmates and has been at or above capacity this year. The minimal offender’s building has picked up much of the slack but is nearing its maximum capacity of 233, officials say. Nesbitt has warned county officials he may be forced to request funding next year to send the overflow to other counties at $60 to $120 per inmate each day.
Washko used to identify inmates who can move “up the hill” to the minimal offender’s building once or twice a week, but it’s become a daily task due to overcrowding.
She proceeds with her classification assessment of incoming inmates after they have completed reviews by others to determine if they are using drugs or have mental health or medical issues. Washko studies the arrest information supplied when inmates arrive and also devours news reports to glean other relevant details.
Sex offenders are housed in space on the second floor that recently had to be expanded because that population is growing, in part due to more computer pornography crimes and offenders who fail to register their addresses as required. These inmates — the count was 55 last week — can’t be mixed with others.
“There’s a code among the inmates that child offenders will not fare well in the general population, and that’s in every jail,” Larson said.
Inmates with mental health issues also are increasing due to a lack of resources outside the prison, Nesbitt said. They are housed in a special unit near the psych department, which tries to keep them stable and, if warranted, on medication.
One of the prison’s five floors is reserved for 96 females, and a new law requires inmates under 18 who are charged as adults to be isolated and separated “by sight and sound” from adult inmates, Larson said. The prison had two juvenile inmates in this category last week. Officials have been forced to place them in a small block containing six cells, which means any vacant beds in their cluster are off-limits to adults despite overcrowding.
About 70 nonviolent offenders stay out of prison because they qualified for participation in a contracted day reporting center program while they’re on home confinement.
“If we didn’t have that day reporting center right now, I don’t know what we’d do,” Larson said.