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Will delayed Pa. prison be ready by September?

$1 million a month doesn't force Phoenix opening

Pennsylvania's most expensive prison could be ready to open by September, according to its general contractor, which has been racking up late fees of $35,000 a day — $17 million so far — since State Correctional Institute Phoenix failed to open on schedule in November 2015.

Walsh Heery Joint Venture, the Pittsburgh-based partnership of general contractors based in Chicago and Atlanta that has overseen construction of the Skippack Township complex since 2013, has offered state General Services Secretary Curt Topper "a firm completion date of Sept. 28, 2017," lawyers for Walsh Heery said in a federal court filing last month.

The state has not announced an opening date for Phoenix since Walsh Heery failed to meet earlier deadlines.

Gov. Wolf and Montgomery County's state and local officials told me last winter that they also were trying to get answers about delays in the project, which cost $350 million to construct under the state's revised "design-build" model, plus more than $50 million in planning and other "soft" costs.

Work on the white modular-concrete complex, next to the 1920s-era gray stone Graterford prison that houses more than 3,000 mostly Philadelphia-area inmates, was largely completed in 2015.

But the general contractors spent much of last year disputing the prison's readiness to open. Officials of Hill International, the Philadelphia firm that is the state's representative on the construction site, insisted that Walsh Heery had not properly prepared for final inspections, as I noted in this space in December, citing documents obtained under the state Right to Know law.

The builder and Hill were far apart on the final inspection reviews required before Phoenix was declared safe and ready for corrections officers and prisoners.

According to the court filing, the builder offered the September deadline after Topper warned in December that "further delay in the delivery of a properly constructed sophisticated maximum-security prison could result in unacceptable risks to the safety of Department of Corrections personnel, the citizens of Pennsylvania, and the inmates."

Walsh Heery's lawyers also noted that the state "has further advised" that the contractor "will face stiff sanctions should further problems with the timing of the completion of the project arise."

The filing didn't specify what additional punishment state officials expect might bring Walsh Heery to finish, beyond the $1 million a month in late penalties the state says it is already imposing on the general contractor.

Walsh Heery has contested the penalties and blamed delays on the state, on Hill as the state's representative, and on its own subcontractors.

Wolf announced plans last year to close a couple of Pennsylvania prisons as the state's inmate population declines. But Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, a holdover from Wolf's predecessor, Gov. Tom Corbett, says Phoenix is still needed because Graterford is outdated.

The new prison, Wetzel and other state officials have said, should be more efficient to operate. It will add a new women's unit, a death row for the convicted murderers Pennsylvania sentences but seldom executes, and more room for programs for the much larger population of prisoners who finish their sentences and return to society.

The new opening-date offer became public as part of Walsh Heery's defense of a lawsuit brought by Connelly Construction Corp., which sued the general contractor and Travelers Casualty & Surety Co.,  over $3 million that Connelly says it is owed.

At least one other federal lawsuit by a subcontractor on the Phoenix project also alleges inadequate payment, and the state Inspector General's Office has investigated late payments to subcontractors at Phoenix, though it has not issued public findings.

In its answer to the Connelly complaint, Walsh Heery blames "acts and omissions of the commonwealth and its construction manager, Hill International" for the costly delays to Phoenix, along with subcontractor errors.

(This story has been updated to include the full name of the surety company and to clarify the roles of the parties in the Connelly lawsuit.)