Critics blast planned prison closings

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HARRISBURG -- Bob Rosatti was stunned and furious when he heard that the place where he has worked for the past 20 years, the State Correctional Institution Greensburg, is going to be shut down.

"I was floored," he said after a state Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday. "Was I angry? No, I was beyond angry."

The Judiciary Committee hearing was called after state Corrections Secretary John Wetzel announced two weeks ago that two older prisons -- SCI Greensburg in Hempfield and SCI Cresson in Cambria County -- would be closed by June 30 to save the state at least $23 million a year.

At the hearing, Mr. Rosatti had a lot of company who shared his ire and frustration: Cresson Township officials Gary Bradley, Michael Vargo and Joseph Pupo; Hempfield Supervisors Chairman Doug Weimer; Roy Pinto, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association; Kathy Jellison, president of Local 668 of the Service Employees International Union; and state Sens. Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, John Wozniak, D-Cambria, and James Brewster, D-McKeesport.

"This announcement has been a great shock to our area," Mr. Bradley said. "We are just now beginning to fully comprehend the short- and long-term damage to the economy and infrastructure of the region because of the closing."

He said his area has lost railroad, coal and steel industries in recent years, "but this loss will be especially painful, as the closure moves 584 jobs from our high unemployment zone."

He said real estate values already have begun to drop, and water and sewer users in his area will be hurt because the prison uses water and sewer services from a newly built plant that has an outstanding debt. Residents will have to pick up additional debt service payments on the plant if the prison closes.

"We were shocked by the news the prison would close," Mr. Weimer said. "Employees will lose their jobs, and local vendors will lose business."

Unionized corrections officers are paid between $51,000 and $63,000 a year. Mr. Weimer said losing the prison jobs will cost the township $20,000 in local services tax revenue. He said the township sewer authority will lose $425,000 of its $7 million yearly budget.

Mr. Rosatti said the money the state spent on upgrading SCI Greensburg in recent years -- a new steam plant, new housing for inmates, new roofs on buildings -- will be wasted if the prison is closed.

Everyone at the hearing complained about not being given sufficient notice of the prison closings, which will take at least 500 jobs from Cambria County in addition to the losses in Westmoreland.

Mr. Wozniak said he first heard of the closings from a reporter a day before Mr. Wetzel officially announced them Jan. 9. Others said they were given just a day's notice, not enough to try to fight the closings or warn constituents they were coming.

"It was a disgrace," said Mr. Brewster, a former McKeesport mayor.

Mr. Rosatti said rumors began circulating in December that SCI Greensburg might close. He said he contacted state Rep. Tim Krieger, R-Westmoreland, but prison officials told Mr. Krieger that plans called for just a "hiring freeze for budgetary reasons."

Mr. Wetzel acknowledged the process of notifying people about the closings was done poorly and he took responsibility for that.

The hearing room was filled with corrections guards, prison maintenance workers and nurses from the two prisons. They also were upset about being told to decide by Tuesday of this week whether they wanted to transfer to another prison.

State officials suggested they might want to transfer to SCI Benner, which is scheduled to open soon in Centre County. It's 60 miles north of Cresson and more than 100 miles north of Greensburg, which means workers probably would have to relocate to work there.

Legislators said the workers should be given more than two weeks to decide whether to move.

They also urged Mr. Wetzel to delay the prison closings for six months to a year. Gary Lightman, lawyer for the corrections officers association, said it wouldn't hurt to "let Benner sit empty a little while longer. Give these people more time to figure out what they will do with their lives. Everybody is shell shocked."

But Mr. Wetzel indicated the closing date was firm. June 30 is the end of the current state fiscal year, and he wants to save at least $23 million in the new fiscal year that starts July 1. He said Greensburg and Cresson are older prisons where the per-inmate costs are higher than they are at other prisons, especially at the new one in Centre County that is to open later this year.

neigh_east - neigh_westmoreland

Tom Barnes: hickeybarnes@yahoo.com or 717-623-1238.


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