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Communities, theater feel loss of Greensburg prisoner work program

| Friday, May 17, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Kristen Tunney, theater manager at the Geyer Performing Arts Center in Scottdale, checks some theater seats to make sure they are tightly bolted down. Work like this was previously performed by prisoners in the work program.
Rachel Basinger | For The Independent-Observer
Kristen Tunney, theater manager at the Geyer Performing Arts Center in Scottdale, checks some theater seats to make sure they are tightly bolted down. Work like this was previously performed by prisoners in the work program.

Several weeks ago, state officials gathered in Centre County to participate in a ceremony to open the $200 million, 2,000-inmate State Correctional Institution in Benner Township.

As part of the opening, employee transfers had begun from the State Correctional Institute in Greensburg, with inmate transfers in progress.

Although the closures are expected to save the state $23 million annually, they will cost the local surrounding municipalities invaluable time and money with the loss of the prisoner work program.

Mt. Pleasant and Everson boroughs, as well as organizations such as Geyer Performing Arts Center in Scottdale have taken advantage of the prisoner work program for several years.

Mike Banaszak, president of Everson Borough Council, said the borough started working with the prisoners in 2006. He said Everson has been fortunate to use their help for about seven years.

“One of our residents at the time worked at the prison, and he let it be known that their services were available,” he said.

In addition to putting up and taking down Christmas lights, prison workers helped with spring cleaning of the borough building. They also painting curbs annually and helped with necessary pothole patching in the spring.

The prisoners in the work program helped paint the Everson Volunteer Fire Department's fire hall and did some work at Everson Evangelical Church.

“Their help has been invaluable, and we're very fortunate that we have had their services,” Banaszak said.

He said borough officials aren't sure what they will do now to cover the projects that the prisoners had done but said that volunteers in the borough — usually the fire department, members of council or members of the civics organization — used to hang the Christmas lights.

“As far as cleaning up the streets and pothole patching, that was always done with very limited assets. And now, with just a two-man borough crew, we don't have anything definite in mind to try and compensate,” Banaszak said.

“They were really invaluable to the borough,” he said of the prisoners. “It's going to be a very big hole that we're going to have to fill.”

Kristen Tunney, theater manager at Geyer Performing Arts Center in Scottdale, said they used the prisoner work program several times a year.

“They (prisoners) did the interior painting of the theater recently, and they've buffed and waxed the apartment floor and other maintenance things,” she said. “They would come multiple times in the winter and do things like tighten down or repair the auditorium seating or things that were beyond the daily upkeep of tasks that kept us busy.”

Tunney said she is not sure of the financial toll that the theater might face with the loss of the program. She said theater likely will ask even more from their volunteers or just leave some tasks undone.

“It's really a big deal that the program won't be available anymore,” she said. “The theater will really miss their help.”

Mt. Pleasant Borough Manager Jeff Landy said it used the prisoner work program several times.

“They helped us dredge Shupe's Run, and they have helped us paint the borough building and the fire station,” he said.

Another big task for the prisoners was cleaning out storage rooms that hadn't been touched for 30 to 40 years.

“It would be hard for us at this point to find someone to do something like that,” Landy said. “Now we're going to have to schedule our employees to try and do some of the work the prisoners used to do, and we'll have to see if we can get some volunteers involved.”

He said the borough must think hard about budgeting projects.

“Our community will feel the loss,” he said.

Susan McNaughton, press secretary for the corrections department, said inmate transfers from SCI Greensburg and Cresson to the state-of-the-art facility were to begin in mid-April.

Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel announced in January that the state prisons in Westmoreland and Cambria counties would close by June 30 with the opening of Benner.

A contingent of state, county and local representatives from Westmoreland and Cambria, including state Sens. Kim Ward, a Westmore­land Republican, and John Wozniak, a Cambria Democrat, unsuccessfully attempted to stall the Western Pennsylvania prison closings to thwart the economic impact to both areas.

Rachel Basinger is a freelance writer.

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