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Closed state prison in Hempfield not yet for sale

Turbulent transfer

After the state closed two prisons in Westmoreland and Cambria counties, most employees transferred to other prisons, the state said.

Corrie and Patrick Rigney contemplated moving from Jeannette to Indiana County when he was reassigned as a corrections officer to SCI Pine Grove.

Instead, they traded in his pickup for a fuel-efficient car as the distance from his job grew from 9 miles to SCI Greensburg to 43 miles. Their gasoline bill has more than quadrupled.

“It's put a lot of extra expenses on us,” Corrie Rigney said, in addition to stress related to finances, the longer commute and less family time.

She is frustrated with the “uncalled for” decision to close a “perfectly good prison,” and the secrecy surrounding it.

Her husband is fewer than six years from retirement.

Corrie Rigney said she has attended hearings, written letters and called state officials but has not gotten any answers.

“There was no reason for this shake-up,” she said. “They did not logically think all this through.”

Corrections Officer Chris Sheetz, 37, wakes up at 3:45 a.m. to get to SCI Pittsburgh from his Hempfield home.

A 2-mile drive to work turned into 80 miles round-trip when SCI Greensburg closed and he was transferred.

“I give myself that buffer, and then I just catch a couple winks in the car” before his shift begins at 6 a.m., he said.

Sheetz has contemplated a career change but said he needs to care for an ailing family member for now.

The transfer has affected his spending time with loved ones, as well as making financial decisions.

Gas and other expenses for his Dodge Avenger eat up more of his paychecks. His hopes to buy a pickup truck are on hold.

Shuttered prisons:

• SCI Greensburg was built in 1966, cost $46 million annually to operate, housed fewer than 1,000 inmates and employed 360.

• SCI Cresson was built in 1913, cost $62 million annually to operate, housed approximately 1,400 inmates and employed 500.

Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
 

Pennsylvania Corrections officials vowed they would save money by closing the state prison in Hempfield.

Nearly 14 months later, more than $2 million has been spent on upkeep and security at the empty prison, while the projected budget for the Department of Corrections has ballooned to $2 billion a year.

And although officials said a year ago that the state could make more than $1.5 million by selling the prison, the behemoth officially known as SCI Greensburg has not even been listed for sale.

“I would've expected much more priority and urgency put on this by the administration,” Westmoreland County Commissioner Ted Kopas said. “The whole process has been a failure.”

It's taken a year for the state to decide whether all or part of the 123-acre site would be put up for sale, state and local officials said.

Hempfield Township Planning Commission unanimously recommended on Wednesday that township supervisors approve the state's request to subdivide the property into three lots: one where the prison stands, a 5-acre lot housing the state police crime lab and an undeveloped 12-acre parcel. Supervisors could vote on the subdivision plan on Aug. 25.

That approval is key because the site has to be subdivided before lawmakers can approve putting the prison up for sale, state officials said.

The state wants to keep the property where the 10-year-old, $2.1 million state police crime lab stands and the undeveloped tract. The subdivision application was filed in May, 17 months after the state announced it would shutter the prison.

The lawmakers' OK

The state spent more than $2.5 million in the past year maintaining the prison while plans for the property crawled along, said Department of General Services spokesman Troy Thompson.

“We did have a plan in place” to subdivide, market and sell the prison, Thompson said.

At every juncture, Corrections officials must have authorization from lawmakers, he noted.

So, while that process plays out, the state has no choice but to spend money to maintain it, said Corrections Department spokeswoman Susan Bensinger.

“It would be difficult to sell if the site was allowed to deteriorate,” she said.

The beginning

In January 2013, Kopas, state Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, and other local officials said they were caught off guard by news that the prison would close in six months.

“It (the delay) is a pain; it's a long time,” Ward said. “That can't happen fast enough for me.”

Ward believes it's “highly likely” the Senate will vote early next month to place the property up for sale, as long as the subdivision is approved. Two parties she declined to name have expressed interest.

When SCI Greensburg and another prison in Cresson, Cambria County, were shuttered, inmates were transferred to a new 2,000-bed prison in Centre County or SCI Pine Grove in Indiana County. A subdivision application is pending for the Cresson prison, which also has not been listed for sale, Thompson said.

Officials said the closures would save $23 million in the 2013-14 fiscal year and up to $35 million annually long-term.

The total Department of Corrections' budget rose by $132 million, or 9 percent, in 2013-14. Its 2014-15 budget increased by 3 percent, or $61 million, to $2 billion.

Bensinger cited rising personnel costs, along with an unanticipated influx of prisoners, for the increases.

State officials hold regular conference calls with local officials to give updates on the prison site, but names of interested parties have not been disclosed, said Westmoreland County Commissioner Chuck Anderson.

The early years

Westmoreland County officials abandoned plans in the mid-1960s to build a prison and sold the Hempfield site on Route 119 to the state for $3.8 million. It opened as minimum-security State Regional Correctional Facility 5 in 1969.

More than $12 million was spent over several decades to expand the prison as overcrowding became an issue throughout the state. In 1986, the Hempfield site became a correctional institution, a medium-security facility for inmates sentenced to serve two years or more.

Today the Corrections Department operates 26 institutions housing 49,431 inmates, although total bed capacity is 46,081. Two more prisons are being built near Philadelphia.

The losses

While the state does not pay property taxes on the parcel, Hempfield Township lost about 370 jobs, along with $21,000 in occupational privilege taxes and approximately $425,000 in municipal authority revenues, said Doug Weimer, chairman of the township board of supervisors.

“The number of families forced to leave the township was incalculable,” he added.

One official said the focus should be on finding the right buyer for the facility.

“It's frustrating that it's taken so long to get much movement on it, but by the same token, it's a unique piece of property,” said County Commissioner Tyler Courtney. “It's going to take a special type of entity that's going to want to purchase and develop (it).”

Renatta Signorini is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-837-5374 or rsignorini@tribweb.com.

 

 

 
 


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