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State, Westmoreland County lawmakers ask Corrections to delay closing of prison at Greensburg

| Monday, Jan. 14, 2013, 12:02 a.m.

A contingent of state and Westmoreland County lawmakers has asked Corrections Secretary John Wetzel to delay closing the State Correctional Institution at Greensburg until next January.

The request was made after a surprise announcement last week by the Corbett administration that it will close prisons in Westmoreland and Cambria counties by June 30.

Lawmakers said they had no inkling that the state was planning to close the prison along Route 119 in Hempfield.

“While we appreciate your commitment to operating the Department of Corrections in the most fiscally efficient manner, we respectfully ask that you place equal value in transparency,” lawmakers wrote. “By delaying the closing of the Greensburg facility, it would allow the public to better understand the Pennsylvania Department of Correction's strategy and motives.”

They said the House and Senate plan to hold hearings on the proposed closure “to better publicize the facts and figures that the department used in making their decision. ...”

The letter was signed by state Sen. Kim Ward and state Reps. Tim Krieger of Delmont, Mike Reese of Mt. Pleasant Township, George Dunbar of Penn Township, Eli Evankovich of New Kensington, Joseph Petrarca of Washington Township and Ted Harhai of Monessen. It also was signed by U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy and Westmoreland County Commissioners Chuck Anderson, Tyler Courtney and Ted Kopas.

Corrections officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Ward said the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold hearings into the closing of the Hempfield facility as well as the State Correctional Institution at Cresson, Cambria County. She hopes the hearings can begin in early February.

The lawmakers said they were blindsided by the decision to close the prison in Hempfield and don't understand why Gov. Tom Corbett kept his plan secret and is pushing the fast-paced plan.

Ward said Media Real Estate Co. of Montgomery County was at the prison on Thursday to appraisal the property. The Department of General Services cannot begin the process to sell the property until the inmates are moved. Then it will take legislative authority to begin the sales process.

Ward said she quizzed Wetzel about the cost savings associated with closing Cresson and Greensburg and how long it would take for the state to realize the savings. The state has spent $200 million on a new prison in Centre County, and two more are under construction in Montgomery County.

“I asked the secretary the other day, ‘How long will it take you to see a return?' He said, ‘Probably about 10 years.' They don't have a comprehensive plan. They overbuilt, and there is no transparency at all,” Ward said.

Prison employees have until Jan. 22 to tell the state where they would like to be transferred. If there are vacancies at their preferred choices, they will be offered positions there. If the department cannot reassign them to a prison of their choice, they will be assigned to another prison.

If they refuse the reassignment, they will be furloughed, according to state policy.

According to the department, there are 858 job openings at prisons across Pennsylvania. That does not include vacancies at the soon-to-open SCI Benner in Centre County, which increases the number to more than 1,300.

Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Hecan be reached at 724-830-6292 or rgazarik@tribweb.com.

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