Community groups feel effects of Greensburg prison closure
A skeleton crew of only two has started pulling down the 2 million-plus lights and disassembling the country church and other displays at Overly's Country Christmas at the Westmoreland Fairgrounds.
Without the usual assist from volunteer inmate crews from SCI Greensburg, the task of packing up the 15-acre display that benefits charities will last well into spring, said Stephanie Tomasic, executive director of the nonprofit.
Tomasic realized last week that a nine-year run of help from inmates would end when the state announced the prison will close by June 30.
Deputy Press Secretary Susan Bensinger of the Department of Corrections confirmed on Monday that the prison's inmate community work program has been suspended because of the pending closure.
“We are super cautious when it comes to security issues. Due to security concerns, we thought best not to continue it,” Bensinger said.
In the week since news of the scheduled prison closure leaked out, communities and nonprofits said they have felt the impact. Officials in many municipalities that used the inmate community work program for festivals and public works programs — they range from Fort Ligonier Days to a Youngwood railroad museum — said they're dreading the financial consequences.
The work crews, which typically include four to seven inmates, were sent into municipalities across the county, saving nonprofit groups and municipalities thousands of taxpayer dollars each year.
“It's definitely a budget-buster here,” Ligonier Borough Public Works Director Paul Fry said.
“We only have a (public works) staff of three, and this year, (inmates) came out and helped us set up for Fort Ligonier Days. They helped put out the 200-plus garbage cans and liners, 600 traffic barricades and special traffic signs.
“And you know what? They were all good workers, because it was a privilege to be on those crews,” Fry said.
“They had to work to earn a spot on there.”
Fry said every other year, the crews would paint the borough traffic signs and parking meter posts or spread mulch in community playgrounds.
“It isn't just here they did the work. They would stop sometimes while passing through to use a restroom, and I'd ask them where they were headed. They'd be going to Cook Township to spread some cold patch on roads or going up to New Florence to work up there,” Fry said.
Mt. Pleasant Borough Manager Jeff Landy said the crews “did a great job here.”
“It's very costly to hire people to do that manual labor-type work. It's really going to impact us and a lot of other small communities,” Landy said.
Last summer, he said, inmates removed fallen trees from Shupe Run and were scheduled to return this year to complete the job. In 2010, they spent more than 300 hours in Loyalhanna Creek on a Loyalhanna Watershed Association Project and helped set up for the popular Ethnic and Glass Festival every year, he said.
Crews even ventured into Fayette County communities, where last year they painted the 70-year-old Girl Scout Little House Society building in Connellsville.
“When I heard about the closing, I was sad, because I know it's going to put a hurt on our budget,” Landy said. “We used them a lot.”
Ray Alincik of the Youngwood Historical Center and Railroad Museum said inmates last summer painted the caboose, restored its interior and refurbished the deck at the Station Cafe.
“You're ruining my day talking about this. We still have a big need, and we're not the only ones who benefited in the area,” said Alincic.
“They really helped provide to a lot of communities and groups without a lot of fanfare. They are definitely going to be missed at Fort Ligonier Days, Greensburg Community Days ... you name it,” Alincic said.
Tomasic said SCI Greensburg usually sent one supervised crew of five to seven inmates to the fairgrounds in Mt. Pleasant Township to build Overly's Country Christmas. This season, the prison sent two crews who quickly erected the exhibits, she said.
“We're a nonprofit, and it takes a great deal of physical manpower,” she said. “With this manpower, we were able to do a whole lot more than we did in the past. They were a very big contributing factor this Christmas season.”
Tomasic said the inmate program has been “very instrumental in providing help for a lot of nonprofits.”
Like many others, she isn't sure how Overly's will prepare for next Christmas.
“I like to believe when one door closes another one opens,” she said. “But at this point, I don't know.”
Paul Peirce is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-850-2860 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff Writer Richard Gazarik contributed to this article.