Workers decry decision to close two Pennsylvania prisons

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"It's a sad story -- we are getting hammered," said Joseph Podrasky, who lives near Cresson, Cambria County.

He was criticizing the Department of Corrections for its plan to close the State Correctional Institution Cresson, where his son, Patrick, and 500 other local residents work.

"We were all in shock when we heard it on the news Jan. 9," said Patrick Podrasky, who, like his father, lives in Lilly, a town next to Cresson.

He, along with Democratic legislators from the area, including state Rep. Gary Haluska and Sen. John Wozniak, are still angry about the prison closing, announced nearly a month ago. They said it will hurt the local economy.

"No one has any idea why the state would take 500 jobs out of a rural area, and at a prison where the state invested at least $50 million in recent years," Mr. Haluska said in a phone interview.

The Podraskys are also upset about how the state told people about the closing. Many first heard the bad news on TV or radio instead of from prison or union officials. Patrick Podrasky said some Cresson prison employees first got the word from inmates, who'd heard it on the news.

"I was eating dinner on Jan. 9," said John Eckenrode, who's worked at the prison for 14 years," and my brother called and said, 'Turn on the news -- they're shutting Cresson down.' That was the first time I'd heard about it."

Patrick Podrasky, a prison maintenance worker, said he may transfer to a new correctional center that is soon to open more than 60 miles north in Centre County -- SCI Benner. It will house about 2,000 inmates and was built adjacent to an older prison called SCI Rockview.

"I'm not exactly sure what I'll do," Patrick said. "I'll take whatever job is offered to me."

He said it would cost him an extra $5,000 a year for gasoline if he continues to live in Cambria County and drive more than 120 miles a day round trip to Benner.

The Podraskys were among more than 200 unhappy people who spoke at a public meeting last week to protest the Cresson closing, a session sponsored by the state House Democratic Policy Committee and led by Mr. Haluska.

Gary Farrel, a union official representing correctional officers, said, "The way the state described it, you would think the prison is falling down, but it's not. There are a few older buildings but there are 1,000 inmates in modern housing."

Cresson, with about 1,400 inmates, is one of two Western Pennsylvania prisons that the Corrections Department will shutter by June 30, the end of the state's 2012-13 fiscal year. The other is SCI Greensburg in Westmoreland County, which has 300 employees and about 1,000 inmates.

Corrections Department spokeswoman Susan Bensinger said the closing of the two prisons will save the department at least $23 million for the coming fiscal year, which starts July 1, and more in the future.

"We are replacing the older, costlier prison space with the new space at Benner," which will have 2,000 beds, she said. Most of the inmates from Cresson and Greensburg will be transferred to Benner. "We also have a new (300-bed) housing unit opening up at a prison in Pine Grove in Indiana County," she added.

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said it will cost the state about $80 per day to house an inmate at Benner when it opens later this year. That compares with a cost of $103 a day at Cresson, which was built in 1913 as a tuberculosis hospital, and $110 a day at Greensburg, built in 1969.

Corrections officials announced a month ago that the overall population of the state's 27 prisons had declined by more than 450 inmates last year. This was the biggest decline in 40 years, which they said made it possible to close the two prisons. But critics said the overall prison population had been growing in recent years, and additional bed space could be needed in the future.

The loss of 500 prison jobs in Cresson and 300 in Greensburg have led to outcries from officials in the two areas. "The shutdown will destroy small businesses," said Cresson official Fran Filkins. "We're going to ask the governor to rewrite the plan."

But that isn't likely to happen. Gov. Tom Corbett is trying to reduce state spending and avoid raising taxes, as he promised during his 2010 campaign.

Cambria County residents are frustrated because the only politicians who have responded to their protests are Democrats, and they're not in power in Harrisburg.

"The Democrats can't really do anything except holler, scream and kick," said Joseph Podrasky. "It seems like we are out in the wilderness."

Mr. Corbett is a Republican, as are leaders of both the state House and Senate. No GOP legislators attended the hearing in Cresson.

Cresson residents said the decision to close the prison makes no sense to them because in recent years the state has invested at least $50 million in upgrades. Mr. Haluska said, "They totally redid the electrical system, the outer perimeter fencing, installed a new boiler, a new dental facility, a new cafeteria and a new cellblock."

A Cresson emergency management official, James Effinger, said he makes numerous medical trips to the prison. "Absolutely, the prison has modern facilities." He said losing the business of helping inmates will cost him up to $35,000 a year.

Patrick Podrasky disputed the difference in daily costs per inmate between Cresson and Benner. He said he understands it will cost more like $88 a day per inmate at Benner (rather than $80), which he said would reduce the cost savings for the state.

Mr. Haluska claimed the Corrections Department "randomly picked Cresson and Greensburg to close," because together they have enough inmates to ensure that the new Benner prison will be filled. He said Rockview is an older prison with higher costs and it should have been shut down.

However, Centre County, where Rockview and Benner are located, is represented by a powerful Republican senator, Jake Corman, who chairs the Appropriations Committee and whose support Mr. Corbett needs to get the 2013-14 budget approved.

Mr. Haluska said, "I'm still hoping the state will change its mind, but I'm not optimistic."

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Tom Barnes: or 717-623-1238.


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