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Chamber chief says group 'stunned' by Hempfield prison closing

| Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013, 12:02 a.m.

The Central Westmoreland Chamber of Commerce president said when he and other members met last year with Secretary John Wetzel, he never hinted at Department of Corrections plans to close the state prison in Hempfield.

Chad Amond said the decision to close the prison has left “our business community stunned, disappointed and greatly concerned.”

Amond said Wetzel last year praised the staff at SCI Greensburg and called the prison a “community asset.”

“He had good things to say about the facility,” Amond said. “The closing was even a shocker to us.”

In a Jan. 17 letter to Wetzel, Amond asked the secretary to delay the closing because of the economic impact it will have on the employees, nearby businesses, the housing market and the local tax base.

The Chamber's criticism of how the corrections department handled the announcement followed a letter from three county legislators who leveled similar criticism at Wetzel.

Earlier this month, the secretary explained the decision before the Senate Judiciary Committee, citing substantial savings and a declining inmate population, and will appear next month before the House Judiciary Committee.

Wetzel and Deputy Secretary Shirley Moore Smeal met with Amond and Chamber board members at Wetzel's request, Amond said.

“Are we to believe the viability of SCI Greensburg degraded so substantially over the past year that it now requires complete closure when less than a year ago you were telling Westmoreland Chamber leaders that the facility was a community asset of which we should be proud?” Amond wrote. “Your comments in the board room and your recent actions are extraordinarily inconsistent.”

The corrections department did not respond to the letter, Amond said.

“They haven't even acknowledged that we sent it,” he added.

Spokeswoman Susan McNaughton said when Wetzel met with Chamber members on Feb. 16, 2012, “the closing of SCI Greensburg wasn't even on the horizon at that point, and at that point our inmate population was still on the rise.

“... We are reviewing all correspondence and working to respond specifically to each one, which will take some time,” she said.

The Hempfield facility and the state prison in Cresson will be shut down by June 30. More than 2,500 inmates will be transferred to new facilities in Centre County and SCI Pine Grove in Indiana County.

The SCI Greensburg closure will mean the loss of nearly 400 jobs and the possible relocation of guards, support staff and their families, Amond said. The Chamber hasn't been able to gauge the exact impact, but he estimates it will be “moderate to severe.”

“It should come as no surprise that losing nearly 400 jobs will most certainly create a negative ripple effect throughout Westmoreland County,” he wrote to Wetzel.

The state plans to send a task force to Cambria and Westmoreland counties to discuss the economic impact of the closings.

“That sounds like damage control,” Amond said. “A lot of the issues and questions being asked ... really could have been nipped in the bud if the DOC had made the community part of the process from the get-go.”

In his letter, Amond told Wetzel the closings would have been less controversial if business, community and political leaders had been informed in advance.

“By simply engaging Westmoreland County community leaders you would have given us the chance to begin an appropriate and thoughtful strategy to brace for the impact of the closure and to identify ways to lessen the impact it will present to our community,” he wrote.

McNaughton said the inspection for SCI Benner near State College was done Wednesday.

“There may be some small issues, but nothing that would substantially delay the moves,” she said. “There was a frozen pipe issue that has been fixed. We will reserve the right to follow up after final inspection since freezing temps won't be an issue, but it wouldn't prevent opening.”

Officials said they won't reveal details about the inmate transfers for security reasons.

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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