SUNBURY - Northumberland County Prison employees may soon be subjected to searches before their shifts while county officials scramble to address allegations that drugs have been brought into the facility.

At Wednesday's meeting of the prison board, members unanimously approved the search of employees pending a meeting with the union and review of the policy by the solicitor.

"Then, if we find anyone in the prison with drugs, the supervisor should go because leadership sucks," county Commissioner Vinny Clausi said.

Warden Roy Johnson, who did not respond to the statement at the meeting, said later he didn't hear Clausi's comment.

"I don't take anything personal. It's a profession. I practice my profession to the best of my ability and I bring integrity into it," he said.

There are six supervisors for a staff of nearly 70 employees at the prison, and Johnson said he has never hesitated to discipline, suspend of terminate the supervisors in his four years of employment.

Furthermore, he said, despite a search, it would still be difficult to find some types of contraband on a person due to the small size of certain packages.

In the last month, several incidents reportedly related to drugs, policy violations and mistreatment of prisoners have resulted in three employees being fired and one resigning. It has prompted Clausi to renew his call for staff to "clean up their act" and go public with allegations of staff misconduct.

Human Resource Director Joseph Picarelli advised the board to meet with union representatives to discuss the pre-shift searches. If not, he said, a grievance could be filed.

Warden Roy Johnson explained the prison code of ethics is not necessarily enough to begin searching employees immediately, since it only addresses being subjected to searches at the end of shifts.

Random locker searches and random drug testing are also part of prison policy, he noted.

Johnson said an additional four employees resigned from the prison in April and two more were disciplined.

The motion to approve the searches pending the further steps was made and seconded by Clausi and District Attorney Tony Rosini. It passed unanimously 7-0.

The board also met in a 20-minute executive session to discuss a specific past employee terminations, but no action has been taken on that discussion.

New prison

The board also unanimously voted to invite the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) to spend two days reviewing prison policies, procedures, practices, medical services and facilities.

The goal is to have NIC make a recommendation to the prison board in relation to the construction of a new prison, said county Commissioner Stephen Bridy, also board chairman.

It will not cost any money to ask the organization to give its recommendation, which would not be binding, he said.

Prison board members have been discussing moving forward with plans to construct a new prison, although some have expressed concern about moving as quickly as Clausi would like to.

County Commissioner Richard Shoch said it was a good first step to get an independent agency involved.

President Judge Robert Sacavage said NIC made some reasonable recommendations more than 10 years ago that were implemented.

"We have set a plan in motion; this is the closest we have ever been," he said.

Clausi also suggested moving forward on a pre-release center, which would help control prison population and generate funds for the county since inmates who work stay there and pay to use the facilities.

Other board members agreed it was a good idea, but said it was better for the professional engineers to include such a facility in the overall plan for the prison's future.

Snyder County Commissioner Malcolm Derk, who explained he was sent by his county's prison board to attend Wednesday's meeting, said he was gathering information about Northumberland County's plans to build a new prison.

"It's important to work together. That's why I'm here: to evaluate all the options," he said to the board.

Bridy called Derk's attendance an "olive branch" and expressed his desire to meet with Derk to discuss the pending plans.

PrimeCare issues

Clausi also questioned representatives of PrimeCare Medical Inc. about cases of MRSA in the prison that were reported to him from three guards when the commissioner visited the prison Tuesday.

Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which is common in prisons, hospitals and nursing homes, is an infection with a specific type of bacteria. MRSA is different from a regular staph infection in that the bacteria are impervious to the effects of antibiotics like penicillin and methicillin. Thus, once a diagnosis has been confirmed, additional tests are needed to determine what antibiotics may be useful in treating the disease.

MRSA was once primarily confined to health care settings; however, it is now common in the community at large, making the disease a serious concern for public health officials.

There were several MRSA cases at the prison in March.

Denise Jemiola, regional manager for PrimeCare, said three inmates were isolated Tuesday, but two of them were cleared of having MRSA and the third was isolated for another reason not related to MRSA.

Johnson said guards often inaccurately assume isolated prisoners who have medical problems are being separated from the general population due to MRSA.