Infrastructure

State prison in Pittsburgh to close in June, more may follow

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

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

The Wolf administration announced Thursday morning that the state prison in Pittsburgh will close on June 30, saving the state approximately $81 million annually. 

Citing cost-saving measures in response to the ballooning state budget deficit and a reduction in the state’s prison population, the western Pennsylvania prison was selected from a list of five facilities considered for closure, including SCI Mercer in Mercer County, SCI Waymart in Wayne County, SCI Retreat in Luzerne County, and SCI Frackville in Schuylkill County.

“Closing an institution is a challenging process, and this decision, made in consultation with Gov. Tom Wolf, only came after considering input from stakeholders and an extensive review of all the institutions, and took into consideration several factors, including the age, size, location, programming and economic impact on local communities,” said Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel. 

With the closing of SCI Pittsburgh, the prison’s 555 employees will need to be transferred to another location within the DOC – a move the department promised to the facility’s staff when the prison-closing plan was announced two weeks ago.

Wetzel said in Pittsburgh Thursday that the department plans to relocate employees to other facilities within 65 to 90 miles of their homes. 

In order to accommodate the transfers, the department instituted a hiring freeze at other state prisons to ensure available space – a similar move to when facilities at Greensburg and Cresson in Western Pennsylvania were closed in 2013.

The 1,921 prisoners from SCI Pittsburgh will slowly be moved to the state’s 26 other facilities based on factors like program needs, security levels and distance from home.

While the administration initially thought that closing SCI Pittsburgh would present the most challenges for closure, Wetzel noted that it was the most economically viable facility out of the five sites due to its riverfront location. 

“One thing we really wanted to look at was the economic impact in the closing of the prison,” said Wetzel. “In this case, given the location of the property, this was a really viable economic development opportunity – and out of the five areas we’re talking about, the area with the lowest unemployment rate.” 

Secretary Dennis Davin, of the Commonwealth's Department of Community and Economic Development, agreed the facility's closure was the best decision available.

“In comparison to the other potential closure sites, we believe that the Pittsburgh site is at the greatest advantage for future revitalization based on its location, assets and the city’s robust economy," he said. “The southwest region has realized a steady stream of business expansions in recent years, and with SCI Pittsburgh’s close proximity to both the river and the industrial corridor, the site is likely to be repurposed quickly."

Although Wetzel could not speak to the future of the physical facility and what it could potentially be developed into by the state, he did note that he does not foresee it being turned into a federal facility to house ICE detainees. 

“We don’t think that's a viable option for this facility because of the age and design,” he explained. “With that being said, we think we do have some space that we can lease within existing facilities and we will continue to pursue that…to bring additional income in.” 

SCI Pittsburgh has operated as a facility specializing in treating inmates with substance abuse and mental health issues. It includes a detox ward for new arrivals needing to come off their addiction in a secure medical setting. 

It is also the only facility in the state that offers inpatient oncology, including on-site chemotherapy treatments. All of those services will be relocated to other institutions, although it was not made immediately clear as to which ones that would be. 

Wolf commended the DOC’s decision to close the prison, saying a declining prison population is a good thing. 

“Prison population is declining; that is a good thing, because its means criminal justice reforms are working," he said. "We must continue to pursue smart reforms that reduces the burden on taxpayers and protect our investments in education and drug treatment to keep people out of prison where we will spend $40,000 each to house, feed and care for them.” 

Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, which joined two other committees this week in examining the potential closures, praised the decision.

“With recently enacted criminal justice reforms that have shifted the focus from incarceration to treatment and community supervision for non-violent offenders, this is a natural and logical next step," he said. "Pennsylvania’s inmate population is on the decline as well as the crime rate, and I anticipated this appropriate response from the administration."

But Sen. Wayne Fontana (D-Brookline) voiced his disappointment in the closure, saying in the administration's “rush to close,” the impact on the prison’s workers was not considered. He plans to urge the DOC to help them with relocation costs.

“The department largely ignored community input, the plight of local prison workers and the impact that this closing will have on our region’s economy,” he stated. “With this decision in place, it is now imperative that we take steps to protect the jobs of our prison workers and see to it that their safety is not compromised under this consolidated prison plan.” 

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto say with the age of the facility and the national trend towards a reduction in the prison population, they understand the decision for closure, and will join Sen. Fontana in ensuring the property will be properly developed. 

“It’s our hope that the property can be returned to the tax rolls and what could be a valuable property can be used for development or other opportunities in the city and county," they said in a joint statement.

Those representing the four other facilities breathed a collective sigh of relief Thursday, effusively praising the decision to keep the three northeast facilities and the Mercer County facility open.

“I am proud that the people of Luzerne County have demonstrated once again that we stand strong and united to protect jobs and protect our community,” said state Sen. John Yudichak (D-Luzerne), who was a vocal proponent of keeping SCI Retreat open.

“I am convinced now, more than ever, that Pennsylvania must reform its protocol for closing prison facilities. However, I must thank the Wolf administration and the Department of Corrections for listening to our case and ultimately making the right call that SCI-Retreat should remain open.”

In the House, Rep. Mike Tobash (R-Schuylkill) noted he was happy to see SCI Frackville remain open.

“SCI Frackville is a highly performing facility and an asset to our community,” he said. “This decision represents fiscal responsibility, as well as good news for our region.”

With respect to SCI Waymart, Sen. John Blake (D-Lackawanna) noted his pleasure with the decision to keep the facility open.

“I am relieved and encouraged that SCI Waymart was spared the fate of being closed by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections,” he said. “This means, for the immediate future, that over 700 jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars of economic impact will not be lost in Northeastern Pennsylvania.”

“Further, the specialized services and mental health treatment sorely needed within our state's Corrections system will be maintained at Waymart.”

Wetzel said the prisons surviving the current DOC decision – and others not mentioned – might be on the list for future closures.

“If you look around the country, you’re seeing this all over the place,” he said. “The trends suggest both prison population is down and crime is down. This is kind of the new normal. I think every budget there is going to be scrutinized about whether we’re at a place to safely close another prison. There may be some that drop off and some that add on (the list of potential closures), but certainly, while I’m sure they’re breathing a sigh of relief, they have to understand the times we’re in.”

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. 

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.