The Corbett administration's decision to close two state prisons is disappointing and disruptive for employees and nearby businesses in Westmoreland and Cambria counties, but shifting their inmates to a new facility in Centre County is in the best interest of Pennsylvania's taxpayers.
By the end of June, the State Correctional Institution Greensburg in Hempfield and SCI Cresson will close and their populations will move to the new SCI Benner in Centre County. The operating costs per inmate at the new prison are more than 20 percent lower than at the older buildings, an estimated $80 per day at Benner versus $103 at Cresson and $110 at Greensburg. The state expects to save $23 million next year, and more in the future.
Besides, the state doesn't need the excess capacity.
After decades of increases in Pennsylvania's prison population, the state last year saw a decrease of 454 inmates since 2011. The number of prisoners housed by the state has declined only twice in the past 40 years, in 1978-79 when the rolls dropped by 21 and in 2009-10 when the decrease was 161. The more significant decrease last year came when the state instituted more efficient methods for processing inmates eligible for parole, which contributed to the shrinkage. The state does not expect a surge that would make it necessary to retain Greensburg or Cresson for future use.
This unfortunately is unsettling for employees and their families, but not all of the displaced workers will be without opportunities within the state corrections system. Relocating, of course, is disruptive, and many employees may choose to seek other work instead, but SCI Benner will need 564 workers -- Greensburg had 370 and Cresson 500 -- and there are 700 other vacancies throughout the state.
While job creation is a proper role for state government, that doesn't mean it should retain positions it does not need. Pennsylvania cannot afford to keep open more jail cells than it needs to house its prison population, and it shouldn't keep facilities open when it has more efficient alternatives available.
The administration's decision isn't popular in Westmoreland or Cambria counties, but it was the right choice for Pennsylvania.