Lawmakers want hearing on prison closing; state touts savings
Local elected officials, still stunned by the announcement that state prisons in Greensburg and Cambria County will close, say they will hold a joint legislative hearing and summon Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel and others to explain the move.
On Wednesday, Wetzel formally announced what had leaked out the day before: The two older state prisons will close as a new prison in Benner Township, Centre County, opens. He said the closure will save $23 million in the 2013-14 state budget and up to $35 million a year in the long term.
More than 800 state employees are affected by the move, which the agency expects to complete by June 30, said Wetzel, who admitted it was an “error” not to inform staff at the facilities at the same time legislators were told late Tuesday afternoon.
It caused “a little excitement at the facilities,” he said.
Wetzel cautioned, “It's not 800 employees getting laid off.”
He said about 700 job vacancies are in the corrections system, not including the 564 employees needed to operate SCI Benner.
Many employees will be offered transfers to the Centre County facility and a new 300-bed housing unit at SCI Pine Grove, Indiana County, he said. Others will be offered jobs elsewhere in the system.
But local lawmakers said they doubt the predicted savings and criticized the secrecy surrounding the decision.
State Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, met on Wednesday with Westmoreland state Reps. Tim Krieger, George Dunbar and Mike Reese, and county Commissioners Chuck Anderson and Tyler Courtney to discuss ways to block or delay the closing.
“They say the populations have dropped at the local prisons, but they are the ones that control those populations. They say they'll save money, but there are no details,” Ward said. “The money savings just doesn't jibe with reality.”
In moving ahead with plans for the legislative hearing on the matter, Ward said, “we've already received assurances that we won't have to subpoena the secretary (Wetzel).”
Anderson called the decision to close SCI Greensburg “a really major blow to our county when you're talking between 300 to 400 well-paying jobs. ... It's like shutting down a major manufacturing plant.”
Courtney and others in the delegation were particularly perturbed that there was no public input into the decision.
“We really were not consulted or warned in advance of this action. The decision to close SCI Greensburg shows a complete lack of transparency,” Krieger said.
Roy Pinto, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, disputed the declining inmate population trend that Wetzel cited.
“This decision is based on a mammoth assumption that Pennsylvania's prison population will steadily decline after decades of increases,” Pinto said. “Despite statements by the department of a declining prison population, (it) has only experienced an annual decline three times in the last four decades. With similar expectations, the state previously closed a state prison in Pittsburgh only to reopen it. It remains open to this day.”
Wetzel said the current drop in inmates is the most in four decades. Since June, the population has dropped by 500, he said.
“We are beginning to see a continued decrease in the inmate population because of internal improvements and recently implemented prison reform legislation. This decrease, coupled with the fact that newly constructed, 2,000-bed SCI Benner Township is ready to open, allows us the opportunity to move forward with plans to close these prisons,” Wetzel said.
Many of the inmates will be transferred to the Centre County and Pine Grove facilities, he said.
The prison in Cresson, Cambria County, was built in 1913 as a tuberculosis sanatorium and later served as a state hospital before being converted to a prison. It costs $62 million a year to operate, houses approximately 1,400 inmates and employs 500.
SCI Greensburg, which opened in 1969 as a regional facility, costs $46 million annually to operate, houses fewer than 1,000 inmates and employs 370.
SCI Benner can house more than 2,000 offenders and requires 564 employees to operate. The annual operating cost is expected to be in “the low $60 million range” per year, depending on the number of employee transfers.
“This is a replacement — two older, less efficient facilities are being replaced with a new, state-of-the-art facility that, in the long run, will save taxpayers $35 million per year,” Wetzel said.
What will happen to the Greensburg and Cresson facilities is unclear.
“I don't know. We'll explore options,” Wetzel said.
Until there's a decision, it will cost about $5 million a year to maintain the two closed facilities, he said.
Troy Thompson, a spokesman for the Department of General Services, said once SCI Greensburg “is vacant, the building will become surplus state property and the Legislature would have to pass a bill or grant a conveyance to the department to sell the property.
“We can't even begin to sell a property or enter into a sales agreement as long as prisoners are there,” Thompson said.
Paul Peirce, Brad Bumsted and Richard Gazarik are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Peirce can be reached at 724-850-2860 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Bumsted can be reached at 717-787-1405 or email@example.com. Gazarik can be reached at 724-830-6292 or firstname.lastname@example.org.