HUNLOCK TOWNSHIP - From alongside Route 11, State Correctional Institute Retreat looks like a fortress, with the Susquehanna River serving as a moat.
Prison Superintendent Theresa Delbaso showed Newswatch 16 the metal detectors and screening that visitors must pass through, before they can visit one of the 1,800 inmates locked up at SCI Retreat.
"We provide a wholesome, very clean, family-friendly atmosphere down here that our visits are conducted uneventfully, and it’s proven to be a good thing,” said Delbaso."We promote it very much. I get many calls from families concerned about their loved ones here. The first thing I will say is please come visit.”
Many of the inmates are allowed to visit with family and friends on an approved list in the prison’s community room.
The room for contact visits has couches and vending machines, with room for about 70 inmates, visitors and corrections officers.
Prisoners who are banned from contact visits are separated from visitors by a glass window.
Luzerne County prosecutors said the community room at SCI Retreat is the place where a convicted killer allegedly molested two girls during a visit last year.
According to court records, Rebecca Butler of Danville started a relationship with Andre VanCliff.
VanCliff is serving a life sentence at SCI Retreat for a homicide conviction in Philadelphia.
Butler is accused of mailing the inmate inappropriate pictures of two young girls and later bringing the children to a prison visit, where VanCliff allegedly groped the girls.
It took a jury about 30 minutes to convict Butler of child endangerment in February.
VanCliff pleaded guilty to child endangerment charges a few days later, but he has since backed out of the plea and is waiting for a trial.
Mark Truszkowski works with the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officer Association, and said that visitation duty can be one of the most stressful assignments.
"A lot of us try to not even know what the inmates are there for or why they`re in jail. We try to treat them all equally. But you could have everybody in there. Every class of inmate, every class of crime,” said Truszkowski.
Truszkowski said the union is fighting for more funding to improve staffing levels inside state prisons.
Unless an inmate is on a restricted list, or has caused more problems in state prison, corrections officials told Newswatch 16 that contact visits are routine.
"Everybody has rights. We promote that inmates have the right and the responsibility to have a visit, along with a family members,” said Delbaso. “But they also have a right, too, to understand the inmate's charges and the background that might surround that.”
State corrections officials said guardians must sign new paperwork, acknowledging what charges an inmate is serving time for, before a minor can attend a prison visit.