Editor's Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly listed the members of the prison board.
The Lancaster County Prison Board signaled during a Thursday meeting that the county is moving closer to building a new prison.
At the monthly Prison Board meeting, Commissioner Josh Parsons announced that the board had met in executive session earlier in the morning to discuss “real estate matters.”
The comment was the clearest sign yet that the years-long debate over the need for a new prison is nearing resolution.
Parsons and the other elected officials who sit on the prison board did not go into further detail on what exactly was discussed. But there have been signs recently that a new facility may be coming.
At August’s Prison Board meeting, Parsons responded to a question about a new prison by pointing to the coronavirus situation.
“If it hadn’t been for COVID, which literally occupied basically 100% of everyone’s time every day plus weekends for months and months, I think you might have seen something move forward already," he said.
There is bipartisan agreement that a new prison is needed. Some parts of the current structure, located at 625 E. King St. in Lancaster, date back to the 1800s, with the most recent additions built in the 1990s.
Debate has centered around when is the right time to finance the project, which in 2007 was projected to cost up to $150 million.
Parsons has maintained that the county must improve its fiscal situation before taking on a large capital project like a prison.
The county’s debt rose through the early 2000s and as a result of the 2008-09 recession, cresting at over $271 million in 2010. That amount has been falling ever since and as of the end of 2019 stood at $185.9 million, a level not seen since 2004.
The county's debt limit is roughly $470 million.
Parsons has declined to define what level of debt would make him comfortable enough to take on such a large project, but Lehman, the sole Democrat on the county commission, has said on several occasions that the county will soon have a “historic opportunity” to solve the prison issue.
He was referring to the county’s debt service level, the amount paid in interest and principal each year, which will begin dropping significantly starting in 2021.
When asked Thursday, the prison board members did not say if the executive session discussion had to do with land acquisition, which both Parsons and Lehman have agreed is the first step.
The state’s open meeting law allows governing bodies to discuss real estate matters behind closed doors “to allow agency members to discuss the purchase of property prospectively without alerting the owner or possible competitors who would otherwise gain a negotiating advantage,” according to the Pennsylvania NewMedia Association.
Lehman has often justified the board’s silence on the prison issue by citing the need to avoid tipping off the market. A vote to purchase land would need to be taken at a public meeting.
Corrections staff, including Warden Cheryl Steberger, have repeatedly noted the problems the current facility presents to operations. For example, the prison does not have air conditioning, which contributes to a spike in assaults every summer, according to officials who cited data maintained by the county.
"If I had an enemy I would not wish for them to go there,” said Wayne Rohrer, who was incarcerated at the prison from April to August of this year. “It was like being locked in the car like when children are or animal are and (the parents) get arrested.”