Throughout history, the question of how to punish criminals has been answered quite differently. Throwing the misdeed-doer in jail has not always been the solution. Corporal punishment, forced labor, and social ostracism were methods more often used in medieval Europe, in England and colonial America. But by the 18th century, the first prisons in the independent United States were known as “penitentiaries” to denote their prisoners as religious “penitents,” serving time for their sins.
Here in Lycoming County, the first jail (or “gaol,” the way the British spelled it) was built after Michael Ross “in consideration of one cent conveyed to [the county commissioners] four lots for court house, gaol, and offices.” The jail was built between 1799 and 1801 at the corner of West Third and William streets for around $8,000.
According to the History of Lycoming County Pennsylvania, edited by John Meginness in 1892, “The prison was a two-story stone building, provided with a dozen or more cells. It was surrounded by a stone wall (which) was not strongly built, but it served the purpose for which it was intended for nearly seventy years. In the front of the prison were a few rooms where some of the early sheriffs lived. Thomas Hays, when elected sheriff in 1822, occupied them and a member of his family was born there.” In 1844, a portion of the wall was removed and a brick building two stories high was erected.
The front tower of the prison was removed in the 1920s. The building was sold in 2001 and is now used as a night club
In 1867 when a fire damaged the jail, it was torn down and a stone structure and wall were erected on its site. According to Meginness, during the construction, “the basement of the present court house was fitted up with cells for the prisoners, and they were confined there until the new jail was completed. All the old walls were demolished and an entirely new prison constructed, together with a dwelling for the sheriff. The latter forms the south front, and as it is surmounted by a turreted tower (see photo above), it presents an imposing appearance. It was completed in 1868 at a cost of $139,440.87. There are nearly fifty cells. And in case of emergency nearly one hundred prisoners could be accommodated.”
In 1977, a class action lawsuit was filed by inmates protesting the conditions found at the prison. Although some issues including overcrowding, safety, medical and others were addressed, this did not alleviate the limitations of the building, which was by then more than 100 years old. In 1982, the commissioners decided that it was time to build a new prison. Groundbreaking ceremonies took place in 1983.
The new prison—located at 277 West Third Street—opened its doors on January 19, 1986, with a capacity of 150 inmates in various segregation levels including minimum, medium, and maximum security as well as holding cells and a work release unit. While a correctional facility’s primary function is to provide security, the new building was also designed to blend into its urban location.
Between 1986 and 1989, the prison population continued to grow. The new prison could not contain the consistent increase in the male inmate population and the county was forced to transfer inmates to other counties for incarceration.
In 1989, the work release program was moved out of the prison into an existing facility behind Lysock View. This building originally provided housing for nursing students and then was used as assisted living units. Construction began to add to the existing building and by 1991 it was expanded to a 105-bed facility for Pre-Release inmates. Although this has helped alleviate some of the overcrowding issues, constant monitoring of prison and Pre-Release populations is necessary in order to maintain viable living conditions at these facilities.
Changes in Staff and Services
Dave Desmond served as the prison’s warden between 1981 and 2005 with Bob Shearer and later Kevin DeParlos as his deputy warden. Tim Mahoney was (and still is) the Director of Treatment throughout this period. Upon Desmond’s retirement at the end of 2005, DeParlos assumed the warden’s position. Steven Blank, who had been the Work Release and Pre-Release Center Manager for over 20 years, was promoted to deputy warden and Todd Myers was promoted to the position of manager at the Pre-Release Center. These changes in supervisory personnel at the two facilities has proved to be a relatively smooth one in 2006, as reported by staff and as evidenced by a recent successful state inspection.
Upcoming changes in services provided by the county include new construction at the Pre-Release Center to provide housing for up to 30 women who are eligible for work release. Currently, this opportunity is not available for females here in Lycoming County and is contracted out to Clinton County. Groundbreaking took place recently and the completion of the addition is expected within the next year.
By Joan Blank
~ information for portions of this article provided by Bob Shearer and Steven Blank; text written by Joan Blank for the Dec. 1 2006, edition of the “County News” – the quarterly newsletter for employees of Lycoming County, published by the Human Resources Office, County of Lycoming.