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Pa. Corrections chief: Closings of older prisons to save $23M in first year

Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Pennsylvania State Corrections Secretary John Wetzel speaks with Trib editors and reporters at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review offices about prison closings and abuse cases on Thursday, January 17, 2013 on the North Side.

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By Paul Peirce and Adam Brandolph
Friday, Jan. 18, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

State Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel on Thursday defended the closures of state prisons in Greensburg and Cresson in favor of the newly constructed prison in Centre County as necessary cost-saving moves.

“This is what reduction in Corrections spending looks like,” Wetzel said in an interview with editors and reporters at the Tribune-Review.

The move to close the two State Correctional Institutions in Westmoreland and Cambria counties and transfer the 2,500 prisoners to the facility at SCI Benner, near State College, and another new 300-bed housing unit at SCI Pine Grove in Indiana County drew criticism from some legislators and the affected communities and Corrections employees.

Wetzel argued that declining prison populations make the moves necessary. He said the two older prisons — SCI Greensburg, which opened in 1969, and Cresson, which opened in 1913 — are more expensive to operate.

He noted that it costs $110 a day per inmate to house them at the lockup in Hempfield and $103 a day to house inmates at Cresson.

Wetzel said it will cost about $78 a day per inmate at Benner, and the move will save taxpayers $23 million in the first year.

When the Corbett administration noted a decrease in inmate population of 500 last year and received reports in autumn that prison populations will continue to decline at a rate of 80 to 90 inmates annually, Wetzel said, the agency was left with no choice but to study consolidating lockups.

He added that no legislators should have been surprised by the move toward consolidation. Legislators across the state urged Gov. Tom Corbett to find ways to reduce spending in Corrections over the past two years, Wetzel said.

“This clearly was not an easy decision or one that we took lightly,” he said.

The prisons are slated to close by June 30. There is no timetable on prisoner transfers, he noted.

Asked about $10 million spent on improvements at SCI Greensburg, Wetzel said all of the older facilities need upkeep. He noted some modular housing facilities included in the recent spending could relocate to other facilities.

Wetzel said some prisons with higher daily inmate costs are facilities that handle specialty populations, such as the mentally ill or the old and infirm.

Meanwhile, Wetzel said the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh remains under a federal probe stemming from allegations that guards failed to protect prisoners from harm.

Investigators with the Department of Justice opened the civil investigation into the Woods Run facility in December 2011 in response to allegations from several inmates that seven guards physically assaulted them. Investigators revisited the prison last month, Wetzel said.

“I'm confident that we've addressed the situation,” the secretary said.

The trial of former guard Harry Nicoletti, 61, moved into its eighth day on Thursday. Nicoletti of Coraopolis is charged with 89 counts, including physical and sexual abuse of inmates and official oppression.

Charges against three other officers were dropped or dismissed. One was convicted on four counts. Two others await trial.

Paul Peirce and Adam Brandolph are staff writers for Trib Total Media.

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