Berks County commissioners are trying to make sure the public plays a role in planning the largest construction project in the county’s history.

Berks is in the earliest stages of construction on a new correctional facility that will cost about $200 million. It’s the kind of thing county leaders say they want to fix.

To assist in this effort, the commissioners decided to hold a series of community forums throughout the process to share updates and receive feedback. The first of them took place on Thursday evening.

“We are not in a hurry to build a new prison,” Commission Chairman Christian Leinbach said at the beginning of the forum. “Our goal is to do the right thing. And to do it with data that we know is reliable, and in a very public setting, so the community knows what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how much it’s going to cost.”

Leinbach said he hopes that when commissioners ultimately make a decision, community members will be able to say they understand what’s being done and feel like they had a chance to contribute.

Building a new jail is something that has been a topic of discussion for commissioners for the past few years, with county officials acknowledging that the existing Bern Township Detention Center has significant structural and operational problems. The plan was suspended due to the COVID pandemic and other factors, but was reinstated in January.

Commissioners hired CGL at that time to help them design the new facility.

Along with commissioners and members of the steering committee that will oversee the multi-year design and construction process for the new correctional facility, CGL representatives were also on hand Thursday night.

Together, they explained the need and value of the project.

Why does the county need a new jail?

“Building a new facility will be much more cost-effective than renovating an existing facility with a more efficient and sustainable space,” said Commissioner Kevin Barnhardt, chairman of the steering committee. “Flexible spaces for rehabilitation and education will better prepare people to return to the community.”

He said the new building will reflect a modernized approach to justice and incarceration that will focus on connecting inmates with service providers in the community before they leave the facility in hopes that the effort will reduce recidivism in the future.

What steps have been taken?

The county has already begun the process of gathering information to help make decisions that will affect the design and cost of the facility. In early May, CGL presented the results of a needs assessment study conducted by the company to commissioners.

That assessment found that county officials have taken steps over the past five years to keep people out of jail. A CGL spokesperson told commissioners that many of the data points they examined to complete the first needs assessment in 2018 have changed dramatically for the better.

Based on those changes, the firm now believes the county needs to build a 960-bed facility, a reduction of nearly 24% from the previous needs assessment.

Where are they in the process?

To better understand how changes to the criminal justice system have affected how many inmates the county will have behind bars in the future, the committee is now figuring out what a new correctional facility should look like to meet those needs.

That means deciding how much administrators want direct supervision of inmates, whether they want more segregation of inmates based on specific classifications, and how much space should be devoted to individuals with serious mental health needs.

But it also means deciding how best to provide educational programs and how best to partner with organizations that already provide these services in the community.

Barnhardt said the committee is holding community focus groups with organizations throughout the county to help answer such questions. He said representatives from the Community Foundation of Berks County have expressed interest in helping with literacy classes, and leaders at the Clare House of Assisi have talked about offering classes for parents.

Chief Jeffrey Smith said those conversations have led to positive developments.

“If we had more space, we could provide more of these services,” he said. “So that’s what we’re focusing on when we plan to build this new facility. We can do much more to foster these partnerships.”

Smith said the committee also plans to talk to current inmates about what they would like to see.

Barnhardt said they’ve already learned a few things on that front. He said when the committee met with representatives of the Hope Rescue Mission, he heard directly from a former inmate who now works there about the changes he would like to see at the facility. Among those changes was a desire to appear virtually at court proceedings rather than leaving jail for routine status hearings.

“It was very impressive to hear his perspective on the current conditions,” Barnhardt said. “And what struck me was that he would rather stay in a detention center than, as he put it, be humiliated by being shuttled back and forth to the courthouse.”

A slow process

Leinbach emphasized that the final decision on the actual construction of the facility will likely not be made until late 2023 – early 2024.

Commissioner Michael Rivera echoed that, adding that building a new facility is a big commitment for the county and one that leaders don’t take lightly. He said the decision will have a big impact on county taxpayers as well as those who will be incarcerated at the facility.

“I haven’t decided yet what the prison should look like,” he said. “I look forward to input from the committee that worked on this, from the CGL that provided guidance, and from the community.”

Despite efforts to attract community attention, Thursday’s meeting was sparsely attended. The meeting room where it took place was mostly filled with county employees involved in the planning process.

Barnhardt said he was a little disappointed with the low turnout.

“I would certainly like to see more people here and online,” he said after the meeting. “But I think because the process is at such an early stage, it hasn’t caught the interest of the community yet. It will be a long job.”

Barnhardt said the meeting was just the first in a series. He also encouraged those interested in the project to check out a website the county has launched to keep lines of communication open with residents working to build the county’s new correctional facility.

website, bccf.countyofberks.comwill be the hub for all information and updates related to the project.

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