SCI-Greensburg closing 'inevitable,' union leader says
The president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association said Tuesday the shutdown of state prisons in Hempfield and Cresson might be inevitable.
“These decisions have been made in the past and we've found, in all likelihood, there's really little that can be done to stop them,” said Roy Pinto, president of the corrections union, before an association meeting at Hoss's Steak and Sea House in South Greensburg.
“I'm here to fill the employees in on what I know and hope to put some of their fears to rest. One of the things we have accomplished is we do have assurances from the corrections department that they will not add anyone new until we find jobs for these people here that want one,” Pinto said.
Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel announced Jan. 9 that prisons in Westmoreland and Cambria counties would be shuttered by June 30 and a newly constructed prison would open in Centre County.
The realignment is designed to save $23 million in fiscal year 2013-14 and more in later years.
Many of the 150 union members at the meeting declined comment.
But husband and wife Garth and Sara Price of Ligonier, corrections officers at SCI Greensburg, said they are still in shock over Wetzel's announcement. The realignment will impact 370 employees at the local lockup.
Garth said they have a baby due about June 30 and they recently worked out a custody agreement for another child that requires he stay enrolled in the Ligonier Valley School District.
“I've only worked here 4 1⁄2 years. I don't have seniority like some of the other guys with 15 to 20 years, so there's little chance I'm going to get one of the regional jobs” at prisons close to Greensburg, Price said. Some of the inmates will be transferred to a 300-bed unit to open at SCI Pine Grove in nearby Indiana County.
Pinto said union members who work at one of the prisons slated for closure were given questionnaires asking them to rank their preference of other prisons where they would be willing to work.
To avoid uprooting families, many officers privately admitted they hope to land jobs in Western Pennsylvania, at prisons in Greene, Fayette, Allegheny, Indiana or Somerset counties. New positions will be assigned according to seniority, Pinto said.
Pinto indicated the department has told the union it will try to match workers with nearby positions, but employees are not guaranteed jobs within a particular distance.
“With my seniority ... my only option could be driving to Benner, which is 108 miles one way,” Price said. “I'm facing furlough and potential loss of all my benefits if I don't take it. It's very difficult.”
Anita Fennell and Corrie Rigney, two wives of officers from Jeannette, criticized how the state handled the closings. Jack Fennell and Patrick Rigney attended the union meeting.
“It's just devastating and tearing a lot of us up — how this was suddenly sprung on us. Especially those of us with children in school and existing mortgages,” Rigney said.
“Jeannette is all I and my children, ages 3 and 8 years old, have known our whole lives. This just isn't right,” Fennell said.
She is circulating a petition to protest the closures.
“It's just like they're announcing they are going to close an entire city and move it somewhere,” Rigney said.
State Sen. Kim Ward, a Hempfield Republican who has been critical of the plan, attended the two-hour meeting. Two other meetings were held at the American Legion in Youngwood.
“There just has not been much compassion shown for these employees by the state,” Ward said. “I can tell you we're going to continue to fight it. We're not giving up.”
A public hearing on the closures is set before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 22 in Harrisburg.
Ward criticized the corrections department for giving employees a short “one-time” opportunity to apply for new jobs.
There are approximately 700 vacancies throughout the prison system, not including 564 employees needed at SCI Benner Township in Centre, a 2,000-bed facility where many inmates from the closed prisons will transfer.
SCI Greensburg opened in 1969 as a regional correctional facility. It houses fewer than 1,000 inmates.
Pinto said he is stressing that union members indicate their job preferences to the state.
“Failure to fill out a questionnaire will result in DOC making a placement offer to you of their choice and, if refused, it would then result in a furlough from employment,” Pinto said.
The Prices are not sure that will be of much use in their case.
“Maybe I will just start looking for a new job,” Garth Price said.
Paul Peirce is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-850-2860 or firstname.lastname@example.org.