Infrastructure

Prison closure announcement arouses concern, skepticism

PA Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel and Gov. Tom Wolf – photo from Gov. Wolf

PA Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel and Gov. Tom Wolf – photo from Gov. Wolf

After Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel announced last week that the department plans to close two state prisons as a cost-saving measure and to cut Pennsylvania’s inmate population in half, a number of lawmakers and stakeholders from across the state voiced their concerns about the latest move from the Wolf administration to tackle the state budget deficit.

Five prisons are under consideration for closure: SCI Mercer in Mercer County, SCI Retreat in Luzerne County, SCI Frackville in Schuylkill County, SCI Waymart in Wayne County and SCI Pittsburgh in Allegheny County.

“Decisions of this magnitude cannot and should not be made in haste,” said Sen. Wayne Fontana (D-Allegheny) in a released statement. “Making a decision to close a prison facility within the next two weeks fits that definition. A decision like this warrants a public discussion within our community among workers, families and corrections officials.”

The senator, with SCI Pittsburgh in his district, added that while he understands the costs in operating a prison facility and the programs and facilities within, the cost of a potential closure goes far beyond simply closing the door and turning off the lights.

“At the end of the day, this is more than just a decision to close a facility – and SCI Pittsburgh is more than just a building,” Fontana said. “This decision impacts our prison workers and economy, and cuts off the rehabilitative efforts underway in that facility. We must also keep in mind that this facility includes a specialized unit for veterans on whom we cannot turn our backs.”

SCI Pittsburgh and SCI Waymart both present difficulties in determining their viability for closure due to their specializing in specialty populations such as those struggling with mental health, substance abuse and addiction issues.

Fontana is planning to host a panel discussion with representatives from the Allegheny County prison, the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association (PSCOA), the state Department of Corrections and others next Tuesday to discuss the potential closing of SCI Pittsburgh. The discussion will be open to the public but a time and place has yet to be determined.

Sen. John Yudichak (D-Luzerne) said the potential closing of SCI Waymart and the two other facilities in the northeastern part of the state – SCI Retreat and SCI Frackville – has the potential to only further the economic distress of the state’s northeast.

“With an unemployment rate of 6.3 percent in Luzerne County that continues to climb higher than both the state and national average, what sense does it make to add to the economic distress of northeastern Pennsylvania by closing state prisons?” he asked.

Sen. John Blake (D-Lackawanna) said SCI Waymart houses over 1,400 dangerous criminals and employs nearly 700 corrections workers. As such, its closure could present a public safety issue.

“I am cognizant of the state’s budgetary challenges and the need to reduce prison populations,” he said. “However, I am not convinced that such precipitous action by the Department of Corrections is the solution to our immediate fiscal distress. This is a matter of public safety and I will be voicing strong opposition to the closure.”

According to Department of Corrections estimates, the closings – depending on the combination of closed facilities – could save between $98 million and $159 million, with additional savings potentially to come from reductions in overtime and lowering halfway house capacity.

The closures could potentially affect up to 2,500 inmates and bring emergency capacity – the actual number of available beds filled – in the state system to 92 percent, up from the current 86 percent.

Operational capacity – the ideal number of beds filled in the state system – will rise from 102 percent to 109 percent.

“We have implemented a variety of cost savings initiatives over the past several years, yet we are again in the position where the Department of Corrections must make significant reductions because of the dire budget forecast,” said Wetzel in announcing the coming closures.

“The most significant reduction we can make as an agency is a prison closure.”

According to Yudichak, work has already begun among area lawmakers and the PSCOA, the union representing corrections officers and other prison employees, to call on the Department of Corrections to delay any decision on the closure of state prisons until a formal public hearing can be held.

“It’s disappointing the Wolf administration has already made a decision to close two prisons without any public input whatsoever and is now, strangely, leaving five communities twisting in the wind for several weeks,” said PSCOA President Jason Bloom. “Closing these prisons will uproot families and damage the local economies in these communities.”

Bloom accused the administration of having extremely optimistic projections about the state prison population, stating that the state system currently remains at overcapacity at 103.8 percent.

“It’s mystifying why this administration would be closing prisons if we can’t even house the inmates we currently have,” said Bloom. “With fewer prisons, a smaller system could literally burst at the seams, creating a public safety risk.”

But the department said the closures will be possible due to the reduction in inmate population – a result of recent reforms taken since Wetzel first took office about six years ago and following the successful completion of the first phase of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, among other reforms.

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre) believes that should be celebrated as the step to close the prisons was what was envisioned when Justice Reinvestment Initiatives began being passed in 2012.

“If we are in a position in Pennsylvania that the prison population has decreased so that facilities can be closed, then this is a good day,” Sen. Corman said. “It signals the success of these ongoing initiatives that were designed to address prison overcrowding and reduce costs. It also is an indicator that we have less crime and need less money from taxpayers to support the prison system.”

A decision will be announced on Jan. 26 as to which two prisons will be closed at the end of June.

Jason Gottesman is the Harrisburg bureau chief and Alanna Koll is the Pittsburgh bureau chief for The PLS Reporter, a non-partisan, online news site devoted to covering Pennsylvania government. 

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