HAZLETON – State Superior Court President Judge Corry Stevens has sent recommendations on how a controversial downtown community corrections center can improve public safety to the state Department of Corrections.
Stevens, who resides in Greater Hazleton, moderated a panel discussion among three local chiefs of police on local crime issues at a June 15 meeting of the Mountain Council of Governments, which consists of Hazleton area municipal governments.
The MinSec community corrections center at Broad and Church streets in Hazleton was the primary topic, said Dan Guydish, executive director of the council.
Stevens said local officials and chiefs of police discussed their ongoing concerns about MinSec, "and I sent those concerns to the Department of Corrections. Specifically, inmates incarcerated at MinSec not only have escaped but routinely receive day passes," he said.
On those day passes, MinSec inmates frequent the YMCA/YWCA, the library and other public places where children and other vulnerable members of the community frequent. And sometimes on those day passes, inmates commit other crimes or escape, the judge said.
"To have inmates walking around the community and frequenting places children frequent and not allow parents and other members of the public to know the crimes for which the inmate is at MinSec creates a continual threat to law abiding citizens," Stevens said. "People don't feel safe."
He forwarded the following recommendations that he said could be instituted immediately for all correctional facilities in Pennsylvania similar to MinSec:
• List (publicly) the names and specific criminal convictions of each inmate housed there and keep it updated.
• Make certain there is immediate return to a state correctional facility of any (one in) violation of the law.
• Prohibit the use of lockers or other places to store items outside the facility.
• Have the city set up a web page link for members of the public and require MinSec to post the picture and name of any inmate going a day pass or work release at least 24 hours in advance of the day pass or work release.
• Require MinSec to update these public records daily.
DOC spokeswoman Sue Bensinger declined comment on the recommendations.
Chamber President Donna Palermo said there have been dozens of MinSec inmate-related crimes and/or escapes in the area since the facility opened in 2008 – at least seven just since January. She hopes the DOC carefully considers the recommendations and does not renew the contract with MinSec, which is set to expire soon.
West Hazleton Police Chief Brian Buglio, who participated in the panel discussion, said "a lot of our major crimes occurring in the Hazleton area are a direct result of MinSec. … There was a murder here about two years ago. The people involved had no connection to our area except MinSec. They bring this criminal element to our area."
Buglio said he would like MinSec to immediately report escaped/absconded prisoners to Luzerne County 911 – not just to state police – so all local police departments can be aware.
Hazleton Police Chief Frank DeAndrea said that in the four months that he has been chief, "MinSec has done nothing but cooperate with every request my department has made."
DeAndrea said MinSec gave his department access to the company's prisoner/parolee database, which lists inmates' photos, crimes, times and dates of releases, who signed them out and other information.
"When I questioned (a MinSec official on why the department didn't have this (access) before, the response was: ‘They never asked,' " he said.
DeAndrea said he also asked for immediate notification when an inmate escapes or absconds and that inmates not be allowed on city playgrounds, and MinSec agreed to that as well.
DeAndrea said his beef is with the DOC.
"Rules should be tightened on who is allowed to go to these facilities and where these facilities should be located.
"They're taking people who commit crimes all over surrounding communities – even if they're from New York, New Jersey, Reading – and relocating them to live in Hazleton. That's what's not fair to the community," DeAndrea said, adding that the DOC should house prisoners based on where they're from, not where they commit a crime.
State Rep. Tarah Toohil, R-Butler Township, and state Sen. John Yudichak, D-Plymouth Township, who have advocated for more restrictions on the types of prisoners allowed at community correction facilities, said they support the recommendations.
They also both hope Stevens' experience as a former district attorney and his current judicial position will draw the DOC's attention to community concerns.