Westmoreland lawmakers blast prison decision

| Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Three Westmoreland County legislators have accused the Department of Corrections of making a cavalier decision to close state prisons in Hempfield and Cambria County “over a lunch table” and “without the completion of a formal study.”

State representatives George Dunbar, R-Penn Township; Tim Krieger, R-Delmont; and Mike Reese, R-Mt. Pleasant, said they asked corrections officials to see studies that led to the decision to shut down the two state prisons by June 30. They received no documentation from the department, they said, because they were told none existed.

But Corrections Secretary John Wetzel told Tribune-Review editors and reporters Jan. 17 in Pittsburgh that studies were done that showed the inmate population was declining and that the trend would continue.

No one from the Corrections Department responded to a request for comment Tuesday.

Reese said the only information lawmakers received dealt with the cost of housing inmates.

Earlier this month, Wetzel told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that the decision to close the institutions was made in December. Word leaked out on Jan. 8, a day before a formal announcement was made.

Krieger said he and his colleagues specifically asked to see any studies related to the closings. He said the only study done involved Justice Reinvestment, which uses money saved by paroling more inmates and reinvesting in community-based corrections programs.

“It's not the same thing in my mind,” he said.

Krieger, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said his committee will hold a hearing into the closings Feb. 13 in Harrisburg. The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing earlier this month.

“Our understanding was they looked at the per diem rate of inmates in prison,” Reese said.

Wetzel said it costs $110 a day to house a prisoner at SCI Greensburg and $103 a day at SCI Cresson.

When the 2,500 inmates are transferred to the new facility, SCI Benner in Centre County, the housing cost will drop to $78 a day, saving $23 million annually, he said.

Some inmates will be moved to a new 300-bed housing unit at SCI Pine Grove in Indiana County.

Reese said inmate housing per diem is not the type of study he was seeking.

“I was expecting a more comprehensive report,” he said.

Dunbar, a certified public accountant, said he wanted to see a study detailing how the corrections department arrived at the cost savings.

“As a fiscal conservative, I'm all for savings,” he said. “How do we know if the savings couldn't be higher? We're not trying to be provincial. We're all for making the best decision for the commonwealth as a whole.”

In their letter, the legislators criticized Wetzel for not providing documentation on the closings and for not meeting with them before the closings were announced.

“We have never questioned the need for any consolidation of prisons should reductions in the state prison population so require, nor have we advocated that SCI Greensburg remain open regardless of the costs. We recognize that spending reductions are necessary, and that no area of the state budget should be immune from scrutiny,” they wrote.

“We do question, however, the manner in which the action was taken, and the integrity of the process by which this decision was made. And regardless of the ultimate answers to our questions, we are disappointed with the callousness shown by the Department of Corrections to prison employees,” the legislators said.

Dunbar accused the department of “stonewalling.”

The Legislature has oversight responsibility of actions undertaken by the administration, he added.

“... Why does the Department of Corrections steadfastly refuse to provide complete information on the closure instead of tightly controlling information to prevent any scrutiny or legislative oversight?” he said.

An interagency task force, comprised of Corrections, Labor and Industry, and the Department of Community and Economic Development, will visit Cresson on Friday to talk with residents about the impact of the prison closing. The task force will be in the Greensburg area next week.

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

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