Officials say Westmoreland County to lose millions with prison closing

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HARRISBURG -- The state's newest prison, costing $200 million and big enough to hold 2,000 inmates, opened Monday in Benner, Centre County.

The new prison, expected to be fully operational by July 1, is a major economic and political win for that area of north central Pennsylvania, but a stinging loss of jobs for Westmoreland and Cambria counties.

Two older state correctional institutions, one near Greensburg and one in Cresson, are set to be closed by June 30, despite loud protests by state legislators and municipal officials from those areas.

"There go our jobs -- it's that simple," said state Rep. Gary Haluska, D-Cambria. He, along with Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria, and Rep. Tim Krieger, R-Westmoreland, were especially vocal in opposing the closings.

But state Corrections Secretary John Wetzel defended the changes on economic grounds. He said the daily cost to house an inmate at state-of-the-art State Correctional Institution Benner is significantly lower than at the two older prisons. He said SCI Benner is also much more energy efficient, and together the changes will save his department at least $23 million a year.

However, shutting down the two older prisons will have a $50 million negative economic impact on Westmoreland and Cambria counties, once the 300-plus correctional officers and other workers leave SCI Greensburg and the 500-plus employees exit SCI Cresson.

"Clearly [such a loss] from a community will have an economic impact," Mr. Wetzel said. "This is unavoidable if the goal is to reduce spending in Corrections. It is impossible to both reduce departmental spending and not have an impact locally."

However, Benner will employ 560 guards and other workers, with about 100 on the job already. It will be possible for many of the Greensburg and Cresson employees to transfer to Benner. The others are seeking jobs at the state's other 26 prisons, and some may retire.

However, taking a job at a different prison usually brings a loss of seniority for workers, said Mr. Haluska, and will cost them promotions and pay raises.

SCI Greensburg once had about 1,000 inmates, but with attrition through transfers and paroles, is down to 800. Cresson had about 1,400 prisoners but is now below 1,000.

Many of the remaining inmates from the two facilities will be moved to SCI Benner starting in mid-April. It was built on the grounds of an existing prison, SCI Rockview, in Centre County.

Mr. Wetzel and General Services Secretary Sheri Phillips, whose department oversaw the prison construction, were among 200 officials at Monday's prison opening.

Mr. Wetzel said the opening ceremonies were "somewhat bittersweet due to the closings of SCIs Cresson and Greensburg."

Correctional officers and other employees at Cresson and Greensburg have complained they were given no advance notice of the closings before they were announced publicly Jan. 9.

"The way Corrections handled the announcement is the biggest rub," Mr. Haluska said.

Local officials in Westmoreland and Cambria counties said the decision to close also will hurt their merchants and other businesses. They too said they weren't warned of the pending shutdowns until it was too late to do anything about them.

Mr. Wetzel acknowledged that the decision to shutter the facilities has meant that "employees from those two prisons have had their lives directly affected by this opening" of SCI Benner.

"But I am confident that the new prison's employees will perform their duties at professional and exceptional levels and that the operation of this prison will further the department's mission of public safety and offender rehabilitation."

With Benner now open, the state has 28 correctional institutions, holding a total of 51,000 prisoners. That will drop to 26 once Cresson and Greensburg are closed June 30.

A second new prison is being built in suburban Philadelphia, but that will merely replace the aging SCI Graterford, which has high per-inmate costs and would be expensive to renovate. Gov. Tom Corbett scrapped a decision made by his predecessor, Democrat Ed Rendell, to build a third new prison, which had been planned for Fayette County.

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Tom Barnes: or 717-623-1238.


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