Prison too costly, officials told

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HARRISBURG -- Despite being peppered with protests by state legislators and prison union officials, state Corrections Secretary John Wetzel says the decision is firm to close two older prisons in Westmoreland and Cambria counties by June 30.

"I'm not changing my mind,'' Mr. Wetzel told the Post-Gazette Wednesday after testifying for an hour before a House committee looking into the shutdowns of State Correctional Institution Greensburg and SCI Cresson.

"Everybody in the General Assembly says we should cut prison costs,'' Mr. Wetzel said. "Well, this is what it looks like.''

Corrections officials could not, however, say when the 1,400 inmates at Cresson and the 1,000 inmates at Greensburg will begin to be transferred, most of them to a new prison called SCI Benner in Centre County. The 2,000-inmate facility will open by late June, the same time the two older prisons will be shuttered. About 400 beds in other prisons, including SCI Pine Grove in Indiana County, also will get some additional inmates.

Mr. Wetzel said Benner is about 60 miles north of Cresson, which should make it possible for Cresson guards and other employees to work at Benner without having to sell their homes and move their families.

At the hearing, several state legislators complained about the closings, which will cost 500 jobs at Cresson and another 300 in Greensburg. Complaints came from Reps. Tim Krieger, R-Westmoreland, Bryan Barbin, D- Cambria and Deberah Kula, whose district includes parts of Westmoreland and Fayette counties.

They said that they, as well as the 800 affected prison employees, were given virtually no notice before Mr. Wetzel went public with his decision Jan. 9. They wondered how long the decision had been in the pipeline.

Mr. Wetzel said the decision to close the prisons was made in the first few days of December, but delayed until early January to avoid dropping the bombshell on workers before the Christmas holidays.

He said Senate Bill 100, enacted by the Legislature in late June, made possible a decrease in inmates in the second half of 2012. The law allows prison officials to send nonviolent inmates from state prison to community correctional centers. More than 500 inmates were released from prison from July to December. Because of prison inmate increases earlier in 2012, the net decrease for the year was 454, the largest decrease in 40 years and something that Mr. Wetzel sees continuing.

He said Cresson and Greensburg were being closed because they are older prisons with higher costs. At Cresson, it is $103 per day per inmate; at Greensburg, $109. At Benner, it will cost $86 per day for each inmate.

"The math led to the closing of the two prisons,'' Mr. Wetzel said.

Legislators asked why SCI Rockview, an older prison in Centre County that is located near the new SCI Benner, wasn't being closed. Mr. Wetzel said the cost per inmate at Rockview is $84 a day

Mr. Krieger said the cost-per-day at SCI Greene in Greene County is about $140 per day. Mr. Wetzel said Greene has several specialized units, including a "death row'' chamber, which increase costs.

He said closing the two prisons will save the department at least $23 million in the fiscal year that starts July 1. He said that because of ever-rising personnel costs, the annual Corrections budget rises about $100 million each year, but will rise only $60 million in fiscal 2013-14 due to the prison closings and other savings.

Robert Storm, a vice president of the State Corrections Officers Association, said that guards in other prisons are nervous because of the last-minute notification of the two prison closings and the possibility of additional prison closings.

"There is additional fear and concern throughout the entire commonwealth expressed to us by correctional officers and their families --who is next'' to lose their job, he said.

Jobs in other prisons will be offered to those at Cresson and Greensburg, Mr. Wetzel said., but it isn't known yet how many of the 800 affected workers will take those jobs. About 20 to 30 workers have decided to just retire due to the closings, Mr. Storm said.

Mr. Wetzel said it hasn't been decided what to do with the two prisons being closed. He said a team consisting of state officials from Corrections and General Services will begin meeting with local officials in the two communities to decide if the prisons will be razed or used for another purpose.

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Tom Barnes, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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