Pandemic, alternate programs reduce Clarion jail population

Clarion County Jail warden Jeff Hornberger has wrapped up his annual report, and he told the county Prison Board the jail finished last year $329,611 (13%) below its $2.6 million budget.

He said a contributing factor was a reduction in the number of inmates in the jail. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the inmate population was about one-half the maximum capacity of 129.

In 2021, the average daily population was 57 inmates, a significant decrease from the pre-COVID daily population in 2018 of 101 inmates.

“A few years ago we were talking about adding more beds to the jail. Then COVID hit,” said Hornberger.

But the reduced population doesn’t mean labor costs are lower.

“We still have to staff the facility,” he said.

Hornberger said his average daily cost per inmate was $110, which was higher due to the lower inmate population.

The lower population is intentional as the county court system has been innovative during the pandemic in keeping people who are sentenced out of jail.

Janey Smail of the county’s probation department noted that there are now four people on work release. The program had been curtailed during COVID.

Work release allows people approved by the court to go to work and return to the jail after work. Hornberger said those on work release must furnish their own transportation, and the probation department must approve the drivers.

Hornberger said two of the inmates on work release are employed at a company opposite the jail and can walk to work.

There are 91 people in the intermediate punishment program, and they can serve alternate sentences such as house arrest.

District Attorney Drew Welsh said those on house arrest might have electric monitoring such as an ankle bracelet. He added there is a cost for the monitoring and for supervision in addition to the original costs and fines.

“These alternate programs have been very helpful in reducing the inmate population,” said Hornberger. “The inmate population is increasing now however,” he added.

Medical costs have increased during the pandemic, and in December various medications cost $10,280.

In December, the jail’s nurse saw 59 inmates and the psychiatrist saw 14 inmates. Eight inmates were placed under a suicide watch.

Food is also a major expense.

The jail prepared 73,365 meals last year at a cost of $1,79 per meal, and all the meals are prepared in-house.

“We don’t get many complaints on the food at the jail,” said Hornberger. “I eat there myself.”

The jail board has welcomed Shawn Zerfoss, the new county sheriff, to the panel.

County commissioner Wayne Brosius is the 2022 chairman, Welsh is vice chairman, and county treasurer Karyn Montana is the secretary/treasurer.