A decade after the project was proposed, and almost two years after it was scheduled to be ready, Pennsylvania this month plans to start moving staff into its biggest, most expensive prison, the $400 million State Correctional Institution Phoenix.

Among state facilities, only the Convention Center in Philadelphia has cost taxpayers more, and still at issue is $23 million in fines related to construction delays.

Eight guard towers and utility buildings at the concrete complex just east of the aging Graterford Prison in Skippack Township, Montgomery County, have been granted certificates of occupancy after a series of contractor squabbles, inspection struggles, and final construction fixes in advance of the latest target completion date, Sept. 28. State officials said some prison staff will move to Phoenix in a few weeks.

Inspectors still are reviewing 3,000 electrical, mechanical, and architectural "deficiencies" in the 12 separate cell block buildings and at 12 other structures at Phoenix, said Troy Thompson, spokesman for the state Department of General Services. The state has no estimate for when all those buildings will be ready. The Department of Corrections expects to finish moving prisoners from Graterford to Phoenix by July, said Corrections Department spokeswoman Susan McNaughton.

The new prison, surrounded by rows of building-high barbed wire instead of a massive wall, adds program space and will have air-conditioning, a big change from the sweltering summers at Graterford.

Graterford and Phoenix prisons

For many prisoners, including some of the longest serving, the new prison also will mean closer sleeping conditions: Phoenix was built with 1,972 cells, according to the Department of General Services, compared with the 2,732 at Graterford. So the estimated 4,000 inmates who will occupy Phoenix and its death row and women’s units — a few hundred more than Graterford — will be housed typically two to a cell, unlike the single-occupancy cells where many lifers live at Graterford. The new cells are slightly larger than Graterford’s.

Lifers and other longtime prisoners who have become accustomed to Graterford’s “free-flowing” inmate traffic among cell blocks are apprehensive of the change to Phoenix, with its separate residential buildings, said Tyrone Werts, who spent 36 years in Graterford for his role in a 1975 murder in Philadelphia.

Gov. Ed Rendell commuted Werts’ sentence in 2010 — three years after word spread that a new prison was going up. Back then, the prospect of a transfer raised Werts’ “angst and anxiety,” with the thought of the loss of access to people he knew across the complex and the relationships he relied on. Werts, who now works with inmates through the Inside-Outside Prison Exchange Program and his own End Crime Project, says inmates today are similarly anxious about the move.

“I just thank God every day that I don’t have to experience that,” Werts said.

Changing from a vast prison like Graterford to self-contained cell blocks, “you go from a city to a teeny, tiny little town,” said Teri Himebaugh, a lawyer who has represented inmates at Graterford for 30 years, including lawsuits against the state for asbestos exposure and living conditions.

The prison has so far cost $350 million, plus $50 million in planning and other “soft costs.”

The final cost may be more — or less: State officials have said they are owed $23 million back in “liquidated damages” for nearly two years of delay by general contractor Walsh Heery Joint Venture. The Pittsburgh-based partnership of firms from Chicago and Atlanta built the complex, mostly in 2012 to 2015, after the job was bid three times under Rendell (who favored a union-friendly labor-management “project-labor agreement”) and Gov. Tom Corbett (who endorsed the “design-build” model on which the prison was built).

Delay penalties racked up at $35,000 a day after Walsh Heery failed to hand the prison over on schedule. In correspondence with state officials, Walsh Heery officials have said the state ought to pay them extra for bringing back subcontractors to finish work this year. Pennsylvania advanced $2 million last spring in a “good faith” payment to get work finished.

At a Senate budget meeting in Harrisburg in March, Wetzel acknowledged that the prison was supposed to be finished in 2015. “It’s been a terrible construction project,” Pennsylvania Corrections Commissioner John Wetzel told members of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “Primarily from substandard construction,” he added, saying inspectors have rejected work many times as they moved through the buildings. Heavily redacted 2015 and 2016 correspondence between Walsh Heery and state agents show the contractors squabbled over inspection records and the quality of air-conditioning, kitchen equipment, flooring, and many other aspects of the project.

The general contractor and its insurers have been sued by a string of subcontractors who say they haven’t been fully paid for their work. Lawyers for Walsh Heery declined to comment. The state last winter brought in Urban Engineers of Philadelphia to oversee the remaining inspections after its construction manager, Hill International of Philadelphia, failed to deliver the prison last year. Hill was paid over $20 million for its services.

Poor coordination among contractors and schedulers caused cleaning subcontractor Caroline Thomas to take her crews away from the project last year. Thomas says her crews were told repeatedly to conduct “final” cleanings of the one-million-square-foot prison — as much floor space as in a high-rise Philadelphia office tower — after flooring proved inadequate and utility subcontractors left cleaned sites in disarray. After an arbitration decision released her from the contract, Thomas said she never collected $47,000 of the $225,000 her firm was owed.

Said Thomas, who said she has done state work in New Jersey, California, Florida, and elsewhere without similar problems:  “This is the benefit of working for the State of Pennsylvania.”