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What happened in the rush to open Pennsylvania’s biggest, most expensive prison?

SCI Phoenix was not complete when prisoners moved in, according to documents, but Pennsylvania officials could not afford further delay.

Google Maps satellite shot of the SCI Phoenix prison under construction, next to the existing Graterford prison. The bright white complex with a central building shaped like a field goal and several X-shaped cells around it is the new Phoenix prison.
Google Maps satellite shot of the SCI Phoenix prison under construction, next to the existing Graterford prison. The bright white complex with a central building shaped like a field goal and several X-shaped cells around it is the new Phoenix prison.Read moreGoogle Maps

In July 2018, Pennsylvania prisoners began their move into the most expensive prison in the state’s history, the $400 million State Correctional Institution Phoenix in Montgomery County, described by Corrections Secretary John Wetzel as the largest prison on the East Coast.

By July 19, Wetzel was congratulating staff on the biggest movement of prisoners ever in Pennsylvania: 2,637 inmates and 175 truckloads of property.

But interviews with inmates, staff, and officials, and documents obtained through Right-to-Know requests, reveal a picture of a facility that still had bugs by the time prisoners arrived — and a move that left prisoners with tens of thousands of dollars worth of damage to their personal property that would be reimbursed by taxpayers.

As recently as December, contractors were still returning to complete fencing and guard stations that weren’t ready when Phoenix opened.

And disputes over the construction drag on. Contractors say they are still owed $20 million by the state — while state officials contend that the general contractor, Walsh Heery Joint Venture, owes Pennsylvania $31.3 million in “liquidated damages” for delays that pushed completion back 2½ years from the initial target of December 2015. The sides are in the early stages of negotiating a settlement. Meanwhile, at least five contractors have sued Walsh Heery in federal court for payment.

Built on the grounds of the old Graterford Prison, SCI Phoenix is a 164-acre collection of two-story concrete buildings surrounded by 1.5 miles of barbed-wire fencing.

From the beginning, there was friction within its multilayered project management team. Under a construction plan revised by Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration in 2012, the Walsh Heery partnership — a joint venture of units of Walsh Group of Chicago and Heery International of Atlanta — was supposed to work closely with Hill International, a Philadelphia company that would serve as the state’s on-site representative. But Hill and Walsh Heery clashed repeatedly over the pace and quality of the work. Finally, after paying Hill more than $20 million, the state last year brought in a different firm, Urban Engineers of Philadelphia, to speed the last rounds of approvals.

Right up until the day inmates began moving in, state construction officials complained in memos to the contractors that the workers still had not finished their jobs.

“It was believed by the Department of Corrections (DOC) that the SCI Phoenix project would be completed prior to SCI Graterford deteriorating to the point where it becomes a potentially unsafe facility,” Gov. Tom Wolf’s top construction overseer, General Services Administration Secretary Curt Topper, wrote in a July 11 letter to Walsh Heery. “Unfortunately, at a date yet to be determined, the DOC will be forced, due to the deterioration and safety concerns at SCI Graterford, to begin the transfer of inmates into SCI Phoenix prior to SCI Phoenix being complete.”

“It is imperative WHJV addresses and corrects all remaining issues in a timely manner,” Topper warned in the letter — sent one day before the prisoners started to move in.

A DOC spokesperson, Susan McNaughton, said recently that it was an inmate escape attempt on June 28 — the man was missing for about 2½ hours, but did not make it outside the prison walls — that convinced Wetzel the move could not wait. June 30, the end of the commonwealth’s fiscal year, had previously been cited as the latest hard deadline.

In the bigger picture, Graterford was overdue for replacement because its design was long outdated — with blind corners and long cellblocks that were nearly impossible to monitor — and materials including aesbestos and lead paint presented an ongoing hazard, noted DOC spokesperson Amy Worden.

“It would have been impossible to make it a safe and secure prison by 21st century standards,” she said in an email.

The DOC brought in a Correctional Emergency Response Team (CERT) to manage the move from Graterford to Phoenix.

But prisoners claim members of that CERT group intentionally destroyed their property; the DOC said that seven months later, the investigation remains ongoing, and that if any disciplinary action was taken against staff, it would not be made public.

Prisoners have been paid $70,000 in compensation for the loss of their personal property, including family photographs that at least a few prisoners said were vandalized with swastikas and drawings of genitalia. That represents payments, ranging from 25 cents to $730, to 958 prisoners. The funds were paid from the prison’s general budget, funded by state tax dollars.

Hundreds of claim reports obtained by the Inquirer and Daily News through Right-to-Know requests outline the range of losses, from the trivial (packets of Swiss Rolls, blocks of cheese, packs of mayonnaise) to the pricey (typewriters and televisions). Several Muslim inmates claimed the loss or destruction of their religious objects, including kufis, prayer rugs, and books on Islam. One man filed a claim for lost or damaged dentures. Others said their items would be difficult or impossible to replace: legal paperwork, clipped newspaper obituaries of loved ones, their parents' wedding albums.

Several have filed lawsuits in state or federal court. One man with various mental illnesses, including an eating disorder called pica, claimed he was so distraught over the loss of his property, he swallowed nine objects. including a razor, six pencils and a pen, and had to be hospitalized.

"After he returned to SCI Phoenix, he was placed in a Psychiatric Observation Cell under consistent and intense watch until he began to come around shortly and realize that his 120 family photos and dead father’s letter [last words to him] will never be had again,” a memorandum summarizing the claims reads.

Another prisoner, who is of Native American descent and reported spiritual objects including a medicine bag missing or damaged, claimed in a lawsuit that he, too, had attempted suicide upon discovering the loss. According to his claim, he was hospitalized and then held for psychiatric observation.

After the move was complete, issues persisted, according to communications between the state and contractors. On Sept. 21, Topper said there was still “back and forth” with contractors about required training videos and operation manuals.

Jason Bloom, president of the Pennsylvania State Correctional Officers Association, said staff had repeatedly complained of a lack of training at the new facility, which represents technology decades more advanced than what they were used to at Graterford.

"Frustrating is a good word to describe the process thus far,” he said.

Though several inmates and staff described what they believe are flaws in everything from ventilation systems to locks and sewage systems that have flooded and ceilings that have sprung leaks, those concerns are difficult to assess or verify. Citing security concerns, Topper’s legal staff blacked out hundreds of locations and descriptions of problems raised with contractors from inspection documents. A Certificate of Final Completion and Final Payment prepared for the project in June had a punch list of more than 100 “disputed” or “open” status items, all redacted before being released to the newspapers, requiring just over $75,000 worth of repairs.

The state had previously flagged numerous problems for contractors including faulty doors on cell blocks, new electrical systems already in need of repair or replacement, damaged concrete, issues with fuel lines for the prison’s massive laundry system, and malfunctioning kitchen equipment.

But “in an effort to exercise good faith toward the project completion" — and given that the prison was already occupied — Topper told the contractors in a Sept. 21 letter that the state would not conduct a final “Closeout Inspection," effectively freezing any new claims about construction problems.

Months after inmates moved in, contractors were returning to install fencing components. One, Florida Detention Systems, agreed to $830,000 in additional work, which it completed in December, according to president George Stewart. Another, Brendan Stanton Inc., signed on for $408,000 in gate and camera wiring that was done in August and September, according to Stanton.

Stanton, a Montgomery County-based contractor, said his company is still owed more than $700,000 toward the $16 million in wiring it completed during the construction of Phoenix, beginning in 2013.

“There was too many layers of management.... It seemed like you had a bunch of little kids up there arguing back and forth. Among the people who do the actual work, the consensus was this project was messed up at the highest levels," he said. He claims that the project was done on time, but sat for years before it was inspected and issues were raised.

He believed that mismanagement was the reason that the state did not include the fencing job in the main contract that he did the work for this fall.

“They would have had to put a change order through Walsh Heery, and they didn’t want to do that.... And a lot of people wouldn’t have taken the change order from Walsh, because they’re already owed money.”

The DOC estimates that over time, Phoenix will provide significant operating savings: $27 million per year less than the cost of operating Graterford.

Efficiencies could take some time to show up. Though Graterford is closed, Phoenix at the end of 2018 was only two-thirds occupied, with more than 1,200 beds still vacant — plus nearly 200 vacant beds at the as-yet unopened women’s unit on the Phoenix perimeter.

And, six months after Phoenix opened, the state and Walsh Heery have only completed the first step of a three-step dispute-resolution process, according to Department of General Services spokesperson Troy Thompson.

Asked what state construction overseers learned from the state’s experience using a third party to manage a major construction project, Thompson said officials wouldn’t comment — citing the threat of possible lawsuits.