Monday, March 28, 2005

The Roof, The Roof. The Roof Ain't On Fire

Ten years ago, Allegheny County constructed a new jail building to replace the ancient fortress in downtown Pittsburgh. As is the case with any new government building, there was plenty of concern on the part of the taxpayers, so the County Commissioners hosted walking tours of the new facility prior to opening day incarcerations. I learned about this too late; it might have been an educational experience for me, and not of the "Scared Straight" variety. My daily commute takes me past the jail twice, and I never cease to marvel at the basketball courts that seem to be on every floor. The cells, I heard, were almost too nice for prisoners to use. Who wouldn't want to be locked up in such a facility?

How about the guard who was trapped in an elevator with a bunch of prisoners for the better part of an hour? After ten years, the structural integrity of the hull has been breached. Or, to put it another way, the roof is leaking and the elevator keeps breaking down. This sort of thing was not supposed to happen so soon:

When it opened in May 1995, the $147 million facility was derided by critics as the Taj Mahal of jails, equipped with cable television and carpeted day rooms for prisoners.
This is one metaphor that always disturbs me, particularly in this context. The Taj Mahal was built as a kind of love offering. There is plenty of love being offered in jail already, and watching cable television in the big house can only serve to stimulate the prisoners' appetite for love, depending on what kind of programming is showing. And at taxpayers' expense! But the hoops are still cool. I bet they even have their own league.

One wonders whether the new warden, Ramon Rustin, knew what he was getting himself into when he came to Pittsburgh last year. His current budget was determined without his input, and he will likely spend the next few years begging for more just to keep the roof on top and the elevators going up and down.
"A serious failure will just throw my budget out of whack," Rustin said.
I have an idea: cancel the cable TV subscription, if you haven't already. With the kind of prices that the cable companies charge these days, you could conceivably save millions. Plus, the prisoners can still see the WB, UPN, and Fox on UHF. And if there's nothing to watch on TV, then they can hold a league tournament on the indoor courts. Basketball is cool.

Something not mentioned in the PG article, and not often brought up in news reports, is the horrible location of the jail. Up above the Monongahela River, atop a cliff known simply as The Bluff, lies the campus of Duquesne University. This institution was founded by an order of Catholic priests over 125 years ago and provides students, faculty, staff and visitors with a nice view of the river and of the neighborhoods on the other side. This all changed ten years ago when the jail was built and destroyed the view from The Bluff forever, or until the leaky roof makes the building cave in. One must consider, though, the view up the hill from the jail. A friend told me several years ago that the guys in jail must have a pretty good view of the girls' dormitories. If this is true -- which it may not be -- then ordering cable TV for the prisoners was redundant. What did the county officials think the prisoners would be watching on cable, anyway? The Disney Channel? I find that highly unlikely.

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