State to close prisons in Hempfield, Cambria County
By Paul Peirce and Rich Cholodofsky
Published: Tuesday, January 8, 2013, 6:38 p.m.
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013
The state Department of Corrections will close the state prison in Hempfield and another in Cambria County, and move the inmates to a new, $200 million facility in Centre County, according to local lawmakers.
State Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, said Tuesday afternoon that she was “blindsided” by the announcement, which sent a shock through county government and the prison staff.
“I received a telephone call from a corrections official in the (Gov. Tom Corbett) administration about 2:45 p.m. that they intend to announce the plans Wednesday. I can say that not one person has talked to me before about this. ... I had no inkling it was coming,” Ward said.
The corrections department plans to open the 2,000-bed Benner State Prison in Centre County, built a year ago, and transfer the inmates from SCI-Greensburg, located off Route 119, and Cresson State Prison in Cambria County, which have the highest vacancy rates in the system.
Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said he will make the formal announcement at 2 p.m. Wednesday in Harrisburg.
The Greensburg prison employs more than 400, including support staff, maintenance and dietary workers, counselors and unit managers.
Roy Pinto, state president of the Pennsylvania State Correction Officers Association, said he had not been informed of the closing.
“If this is the case, the PSCOA was not consulted and will look at all options. Such closings will hurt thousands of families and devastate the local economy in those areas,” Pinto said.
About 250 belong to the local union, said Lance Burkholder, president at SCI-Greensburg. He declined further comment until he hears the news officially.
“They told me it will save money, but they haven't said where it will save money,” Ward said. “I intend to call for hearings on the closures, because the public transparency was just not out there on this.”
State Rep. Tim Krieger, R-Delmont, said he was driving back from Harrisburg on Tuesday when he got the news.
“I'm absolutely blindsided,” he said. “I don't understand why the decision was made. I don't know who made the decision. I wasn't consulted about it. It's hard to understand why we build prisons in Centre County that we don't need.”
Krieger said the job loss is “very significant. I want some answers.”
SCI Greensburg, a medium security facility for men, housed 988 inmates on Dec. 31, according to the corrections department.
The 1,143-bed prison is the fourth smallest in the state system, larger only than general population state prisons in Crawford and Schuylkill counties and Pine Grove, a facility for young offenders in Indiana County.
Greensburg was 86.4 percent occupied in December, the largest vacancy rate in the state. The 1,563-capacity Cresson prison ranked second with an 89.3 vacancy rate.
By comparison, the state prison in Fayette County had more than 2,000 inmates and was 13 percent over capacity last month while the Pittsburgh facility housed 1,633, just 90 percent of capacity.
Westmoreland officials are concerned by the financial impact on the county.
“I certainly would like to keep it open and I'll do whatever we can do to make it happen,” said commission Chairman Charles Anderson. “If they go forward with this, it will have an impact on jobs and our economy.”
Commissioner Ted Kopas said the state gathered no local input.
“The way we're being notified is ridiculous and insulting. Hopefully, we have an opportunity to appeal this. I hope it is not final,” Kopas said.
The closing could be costly for county corrections operations, because state inmates are transported from the Greensburg prison to the courthouse for hearings. Sheriff Jonathan Held said deputies will have to drive to Pittsburgh or Fayette County to transport inmates with court dates in Greensburg.
“We do that fairly frequently. It's going to impact our man hours and our mileage costs,” Held said.
The facility was built on 130 acres in 1966 as the Westmoreland County Prison. The state acquired it in 1969 and converted it for use as the state's first regional correctional facility to serve a nine-county area of Southwestern Pennsylvania.
Doug Weimer, chairman of the Hempfield supervisors, said the township stands to lose tax revenue as well as jobs.
“This job loss will not be easy to overcome. I'm shocked like everybody else and want to know what the state has in mind for the future,” he said. “These are good-paying jobs. They contributed to local service taxes.”
Weimer said he's not sure how much Earned Income Tax revenue the township could lose.
“We didn't prepare for this in our budget this year,” he said. “This is a loss of a lot of jobs and a lot of revenue.”
A former prison is not like a closed manufacturing center, he added.
“It's a unique site. It's not like Sony moving out and the state putting different industries in there,” Weimer said.
Department of Corrections officials in Harrisburg could not be reached for comment.
Staff writer Richard Gazarik contributed to this story. Rich Cholodofsky and Paul Peirce are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Cholodofsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Peirce can be reached at email@example.com.
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