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Vermont inmates to fill surplus beds in Pennsylvania prisons

Debra Erdley
| Tuesday, May 2, 2017, 11:00 p.m.

Seven years after the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections began busing inmates from its overcrowded prisons to cells in Michigan and Virginia, the state has inked a deal to house inmates from Vermont's overflowing prison system.

“Across the system, we have roughly 5,000 empty beds. Vermont is looking for beds at the same time we have available beds, so it works out for both states,” Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel said Tuesday.

The state prison population has fallen 8.8 percent over the past six years to about 47,400. The recent declines follow decades of exponential increases in the population, which was 8,243 in 1980.

With that growth came shifts in state priorities as corrections spending began to eclipse spending on higher education. Support for higher education stood at $1.3 billion last year, compared with $2.4 billion for corrections.

Experts say a decline in violent crime coupled with an end to mandatory minimum sentences for many crimes and attempts to divert nonviolent offenders to drug or mental health treatment centers impacted Pennsylvania's inmate count.

Joshua Aiken, a policy fellow with the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative, said the decline here follows a trend that has taken hold across the country, where state prison populations declined about 5 percent over the same period.

The Pennsylvania changes follow a decline in the number of beds available that led the state to close two prisons since 2013 — SCI Greensburg, a 960-bed facility in Hempfield, and SCI Cresson, a 1,600-bed facility in Cambria County — and start the process of closing the 1,800-capacity SCI Pittsburgh. During the same period, it opened SCI Benner, a 1,900-bed prison built at a cost of $200 million in Centre County.

Contractors also are finishing work on SCI Phoenix, near Philadelphia. The $400 million, 3,678-bed facility will replace SCI Graterford, an aging facility with 3,361 beds that's scheduled to be “mothballed” when the new prison opens on the grounds.

Despite a decline in the overall number of beds, Pennsylvania officials say they will be able to handle up to 400 Vermont inmates.

The first 270 of those inmates, now housed in a private prison in Michigan, are expected to arrive in Pennsylvania in June. The agreement calls for them to be housed at a cost of $72 a day, either at SCI Camp Hill, near Harrisburg, or SCI Graterford.

Vermont officials began scouting for new cells late last year when GEO Group, the private prison corporation operating the Michigan facility where the inmates are housed, announced it would not renew its contract with the Vermont Department of Corrections.

Nationally, conversations about imprisonment have taken a dramatic turn from the 1990s, when calls to “get tough on crime” and demands for mandatory minimum sentences dominated headlines, to today, when the impact of mass incarceration has become an issue.

But Claire Shubik-Richards, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, said there are concerns that Pennsylvania's prison population could easily increase if a bill pending in the state Senate gains traction. That bill would reinstate mandatory minimum sentences for some drug and violent crimes.

Aiken said there are pushes in other states as well for a return to mandatory minimum sentences.

“What's alarming now is that renting cells between states has increased drastically. If you're renting to Vermont, those facilities are still there and ready if incarceration rates shoot back up,” Aiken said.

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. She can be reached at 412-320-7996, or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.

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