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By Richard Gazarik
Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The Senate Judiciary Committee chairman warned the union representing corrections officers at state prisons in Westmoreland and Cambria counties not to quiz Corrections Secretary John Wetzel about cost savings or inmate population when he testifies before the committee next week in Harrisburg, the union's president said.

Roy Pinto of the Pennsylvania Correction Officers Association said committee Chairman Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery/Bucks, passed along the warning through the union's lobbyists in Harrisburg.

“It came from the chairman of the committee,” Pinto said. “They're playing with the numbers. We were told, ‘Don't question the numbers.'”

Greenleaf called Pinto's charge “absolutely not true. Members are encouraged to ask any question. That's the purpose of the hearing.”

“The DOC is prepared to answer whatever questions are asked,” said spokeswoman Susan McNaughton.

Greg Warner, counsel to the Judiciary Committee, said he talked to the union lobbyist but never told him to “go easy” on Wetzel.

“Something may have gotten lost in the translation,” Warner said.

Union officials will testify at the hearing.

Pinto has disputed the $23 million in savings that Wetzel estimates the state will realize by closing the two prisons and opening a new facility in Centre County, SCI Benner. He questions how the department determined that the cost of housing inmates differs between prisons.

“They just add stuff to drive up that number,” Pinto said.

Sens. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield and John Wozniak, D-Johnstown, whose districts include the prisons, will be part of the committee questioning Wetzel Tuesday, along with officials of the Pennsylvania Correction Officers Association. Ward demanded the hearing last week after the state announced the closings with no advance warning to lawmakers, who are angry with the Corbett administration over the secrecy surrounding the decision.

Ward said she is concerned about the impact on corrections officers and other employees, who may have to relocate when the prison closes.

She pointed out that 50 corrections officers who served in the military obtained home mortgage assistance after they were assigned to SCI Greensburg. They may have to repay the money if they need to move, she said.

“They have to pick up and move their families,” Ward said. “The state is doing stuff without thinking of the consequences.”

Ward doesn't understand the rush to close Greensburg by June 30.

“When they closed SCI Pittsburgh, it took them two years,” she said. “What's behind this? There's no transparency at all.”

The state closed the Pittsburgh prison, known as Western Pen, in 2005 but reopened it two years later.

If Ward isn't satisfied with the answers at Tuesday's hearing, she may hold another hearing in Greensburg, she said. As chairwoman of the Committee on Economic and Recreational Development, she could explore the economic impact of closing SCI Greensburg on the area's economy.

“If we don't get the answers we want, there will be another hearing,” she said.

Wozniak, whose district includes part of Centre County, said the shift of inmates to Benner Township doesn't make sense because the $200 million prison is located in a high-income region with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state.

“Prisons historically have been placed areas of high unemployment,” Wozniak said. “Cambria County is a prime example of Appalachia.”

When SCI Cresson was opened, the borough built a sewage treatment plant to handle waste from the institution. The closing means the borough's 1,700 residents will have to pay higher sewage bills to make up for the revenue loss, Wozniak said.

“There's no cost savings to Cresson,” he said.

Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6292.

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