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Fayette commissioners clash over jail options

A day after putting a planned $32 million jail on the back burner, Fayette County commissioners are ready to begin exploring other options but remain at odds over what direction to take.

Commissioner Vincent Zapotosky said he believes the existing 125-year-old jail in Uniontown can be renovated and a smaller facility built nearby to address overcrowding.

Commissioner Al Ambrosini said the new facility is the most cost-effective option.

Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink said she favors looking at programs aimed at reducing the inmate population as part of any solution.

Zapotosky and Zimmerlink on Tuesday voted to suspend work on the Justice and Rehabilitation Center, which was to be located off Mt. Braddock Road in North Union and Dunbar townships.

The project, after two years and $2 million in planning, architectural and engineering fees, was ready to be bid out when the two commissioners halted it. Ambrosini dissented.

The jail’s design was based on input gathered by Ambrosini and his volunteer Prison Working Group, which included representatives from the courts, police, jail and various social service agencies.

Zapotosky and Zimmerlink want the commissioners to begin holding work sessions to explore alternatives to the new jail. They said the sessions were unanimously approved in October but never implemented.

Dates have not been set for the sessions.

On Wednesday, Zapotosky said he wants to renovate the existing jail at an estimated cost of $7 million. An architectural study showed renovations will result in fewer cells, he said. But he believes that could be addressed by building another facility nearby and using it, along with an existing annex, to handle overcrowding.

“We have the ability to remodel the existing prison for around $7 million, and that will reduce the population by about 20, but it’s $7 million,” Zapotosky said. “Then my goal would be to build another facility with a maximum population of around 200, and your problem is solved.”

That option will be less costly than the new jail because it won’t require a courtroom or booking center, Zapotosky said. A courtroom was to be part of the new jail to reduce transportation costs to move inmates from the facility to the courthouse for hearings.

In addition, Zapotosky said the county will not incur the infrastructure costs needed at the Mt. Braddock Road location. The site needs sewerage, water, roads and utilities.

Ambrosini said the architectural study found the renovation option is not cost-effective because multi-story facilities require more personnel to operate. In addition, having separate facilities increases costs and logistics to provide such basics as food service.

The option to renovate doesn’t allow for implementation of programs to curb recidivism, he said.

“Work release and other programs to help us rehabilitate people will make neighborhoods safer and reduce taxes,” Ambrosini said. “This is a no-brainer. This is a project Fayette County has needed for at least a decade.”

Ambrosini said he remains optimistic the new jail will be built.

“The bottom line is, I’m hoping Vince realizes this is a complicated solution for a very complicated problem,” Ambrosini said. “I’m hoping Vince realizes this is the best way to go and changes his mind.”

Zimmerlink said opening discussion to alternatives has been what she “had proposed all along.” She said she believes overcrowding and recidivism can be addressed “without extravagance and knowing taxpayers will foot the bill.”

Warden Brian Miller said the existing jail can hold a maximum 262 inmates, but to operate safely, the number should not exceed 232. On Wednesday, there were 235 inmates in the facility, and 53 in cells rented in Greene and Bedford counties, he said.

Liz Zemba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or [email protected].


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