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SCI Phoenix: New boss, late fixes as Pa.'s $400M prison nears opening

"We are closer and closer to having a complete facility" that was supposed to be finished in 2015.

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel leads a tour through the newest prison in Pennsylvania Friday, September 01, 2017 at State Correction Institution Phoenix in Skippack, Pennsylvania. The facility is inching closer to opening, two years late, to replace Graterford Prison at a cost of $400 million. (WILLIAM THOMAS CAIN / For The Philadelphia Inquirer)
Corrections Secretary John Wetzel leads a tour through the newest prison in Pennsylvania Friday, September 01, 2017 at State Correction Institution Phoenix in Skippack, Pennsylvania. The facility is inching closer to opening, two years late, to replace Graterford Prison at a cost of $400 million. (WILLIAM THOMAS CAIN / For The Philadelphia Inquirer)Read moreWilliam Thomas Cain

Ten weeks before the largest prison in Pennsylvania is supposed to open, five of the two-story concrete cellblock buildings at the $400 million State Correction Institution Phoenix in Skippack Township have been cleared for prisoners to live in. Ten other cellblocks still need fixes and repairs to get off the state's "violations list" so they can house inmates from the aging Graterford prison next door.

So it goes at the state's second biggest taxpayer-backed project (after the Pennsylvania Convention Center), which remains more than two years behind schedule, and with many details left to check. Two-thirds of the cross-shaped concrete cellblocks have yet to pass final inspection, along with the two prison activities buildings, one of two prison industries buildings, and three support buildings. "They are still getting those housing units and other buildings finished," confirmed spokesman Troy Thompson, of the Department of General Services, which oversees state building construction.

Along with those fixes, as the state approaches its June 30 opening target, is a change in Phoenix's top management. The Corrections Department has tapped Tammy Ferguson as Phoenix's first superintendent. Ferguson will move to Graterford from SCI Benner Township, a medium-security facility near State College and one of the state's newest prisons. She will report to Wetzel deputy Tabb Bickell. Deputy Steve Glunt is overseeing the transition to the new prison. Benner houses about 2,075 inmates, about half of Phoenix's (and Graterford's) capacity. Benner was one of the few Pennsylvania state prisons that operated at a cost  of less than $100 an inmate a day, according to a 2016 Corrections Department report.

Cynthia Link, who headed Graterford and had been slated to run Phoenix, retired earlier this month. Correction officials have given no reason for her retirement. Link headed Graterford, the state's largest prison and the primary location for Philadelphia-area inmates, since 2015. She leaves amid final preparations for the move, which corrections officers and inmates have called stressful, and after a spate of inmate suicides.

Phoenix is an unusually large new prison. And it is opening at a time when Pennsylvania and other states are reporting declining prison populations and leaders in both parties are reviewing alternatives to expensive incarceration. Promise, a California-based "de-carceration" company, says it recently raised $3 million from FirstRound Capital (whose Philadelphia partner Josh Kopelman chairs the Inquirer's board), rapper Jay-Z's Roc Nation, 8VC, and Kapor Capital to build an app to supervise some offenders without prison or cash bail.

While finishing Phoenix, Gov. Wolf and his corrections secretart, John Wetzel, first appointed by predecessor Gov. Tom Corbett, have sought to close older prisons. But a bill advancing in the Pennsylvania state Senate, supported by upstate legislators who value prison jobs in towns with few private-sector alternatives, would make state prisons harder to close.

Phoenix was supposed to be finished in 2015. Since then, general contractor Walsh Heery Joint Venture, a Pittsburgh-based partnership of general contractors based in Chicago and Atlanta, has been racking up penalties of $35,000 a day — totaling $30 million so far — though Walsh Heery has argued it should not have to pay.

Thompson said the state still expects to get that share of the project cost refunded, though the state in May advanced $2 million to contractors to make sure workers are paid while inspections continue.

The state last year hired Urban Engineers Inc. of Philadelphia to help speed final work after the state's project manager, Hill International Ltd., also of Philadelphia, failed to ensure that Phoenix opened on time. Hill was paid more than $20 million despite the ongoing delays. Hill and Walsh Heery managers blamed each other for the delays under the design-build contract, which Walsh Heery won under Corbett. Urban has been paid $815,000.

Redacted state records from 2015 and 2016 show conflicts simmering between builders and the state's construction representatives over utilities, flooring, lighting and other basic systems. Work change orders have not added much to construction costs, records show.

Parts of Graterford date to the 1920s. The facility is leaky and lacks full air conditioning. Although the new facility will double classroom space, expand gyms, and use more efficient climate controls, more inmates will be doubled up in single cells. "Double cells have been the model nationwide for 25 years," said state corrections spokeswoman Amy Worden, though some inmates won't have cellmates. Inmates, corrections officers, visitors, and family members have said the move from Graterford will disrupt familiar patterns.

State officials are taking extra steps to get inmates into the new facility before the end of the budget year, June 30. Normally, "we don't turn anything over until the entire prison is complete. That's when we give them the key and they can go in," Thompson said.  "But this is a unique circumstance," so corrections officials are being allowed to "go in there and prepare the place for transition," while inspectors are still busy on site.

In February and early March, the state reported four inmate suicides in five weeks at Graterford. The entire state prison system, with nearly 50,000 inmates in two dozen facilities, has averaged seven suicides a year since 2000, as my colleague Samantha Melamed reported. 

Inmate deaths are sometimes followed by changes in prison administration. The 1996 federal and state raid on Graterford and major changes to its management followed inmate overdoses on illegal drugs, and Delaware County changed its privately run prison management company in the late 2000s after inmate suicides.

State officials say they are taking the last-minute Phoenix changes in stride. "We are very confident that we will have everything done by the deadline," spokesman Thompson said. "We are closer and closer to having a complete facility for the Department of Corrections."