Delay sought as state readies to close prisons Greensburg and Cambria

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HARRISBURG -- Federal, state and county officials are urging the Corbett administration to delay the closing of two state prisons in Western Pennsylvania for at least six months to a year.

U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, Westmoreland County commissioners and several state legislators want the closings -- now set to happen by June 30 -- postponed until early or mid-2014 so that legislative hearings can be held on the job losses, costs involved and other concerns.

The legislators said 370 jobs would be lost at the State Correctional Institution Greensburg in Hempfield, plus another 500 jobs at SCI Cresson in Cambria, hurting both local economies.

A letter went to Corrections Secretary John Wetzel last week, signed by Mr. Murphy, several state legislators and the county commissioners, asking him to "delay your recently announced plan to close SCI Greensburg until at least January 2014."

"We know that millions of state taxpayer investments were put into the Greensburg prison in the last few years, and we want to know why this decision [to close] is being made," said Rep. Tim Krieger, R-Westmoreland.

A second letter went to Mr. Wetzel on Tuesday, asking for "a list of facility upgrades and renovations that were completed at SCI Greensburg since 2002." Also sought is "the month and years of completion as well as the cost of [each] project."

The legislators plan to hold state House and Senate hearings on the prison closings in about a month, Mr. Krieger said. In announcing the shutdowns last week, Mr. Wetzel said they will save the state at least $23 million a year in prison costs.

Several legislators also complained about the process, saying little advance notice was given by Mr. Wetzel before the closings became public and constituents began protesting.

Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria, said he was told about the Cresson closing by a reporter from The Associated Press before the administration contacted him. He said Cambria County business owners are urging the governor to delay closing Cresson at least until June 2014.

He said the area's water and sewer systems were recently expanded and the prison is using one-third of the additional capacity. Residents will have to pay higher water and sewer bills if the prison no longer is a customer, he said.

Murphy aide Brad Grantz said the congressman views the prison issue "much like the 911th Airlift Wing in Moon," which federal officials periodically talk about closing.

Both institutions have "a major impact on communities, from the families who work there to the local economic impact to the effect on the local tax base," Mr. Grantz said.

The legislators told Mr. Wetzel they understood the need "to operate the Department of Corrections in the most fiscally efficient manner," but "we respectfully ask that you place an equal value in transparency," meaning being open with them about what is planned.

The upcoming legislative hearings, they said, will "better publicize the facts and figures that the department used'' in justifying the prison shutdowns.

Mr. Wetzel said the two prisons would be shut down, and the workers transferred to other prisons if they wish, by June 30, the end of the current state fiscal year. Many of the workers could go to a new prison in Centre County, where inmates can be housed at a lower cost than at the old prisons, he said.

Mr. Wozniak said that before SCI Pittsburgh was temporarily shut down in 2007, "Pittsburgh officials had a full year of knowledge," which gave them time to prepare. But he said Cambria officials found out about the Cresson shutdown only a day before the official announcement. The Pittsburgh prison was later reopened in 2009.

Mr. Wozniak said he is looking at legal action aimed at blocking the Cresson closing but has been told that has only a small chance of success.

A Department of Corrections spokeswoman, Susan Bensinger, reacted cautiously to the calls for delaying the prison closings. She said Mr. Wetzel "has a good working relationship with legislators and anticipates that relationship continuing. He is always open for discussion.''

But she declined to comment on the requested delay. "We are replacing old, inefficient, expensive bed space with new, efficient, less cost-intensive beds'' in the new SCI Benner in Centre County, she said.

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Tom Barnes, freelance writer:


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