Pa. closing prisons in Hempfield, Cambria

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HARRISBURG -- The Corbett administration will shutter two state prisons -- one in Hempfield, the other in Cambria County -- by summer while opening a newly built Centre County facility, officials announced Wednesday, prompting backlash from officials in Westmoreland County.

Replacing the two older prisons with a more efficient facility will save $23 million next year and more in years to come, Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said. The agency plans to close both facilities by the end of the state fiscal year on June 30.

Mr. Wetzel said the stabilization of the prison population -- it declined by 454 inmates last year, the largest yearly drop in 40 years -- assured the administration it will not need to reconsider the closures. State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh was closed in 2007 but reopened in 2009.

Five hundred people work at SCI Cresson in Cambria County, and 370 people work at SCI Greensburg in Hempfield. Because the new facility, SCI Benner in Centre County, will need 564 workers and about 700 vacancies exist within the state corrections system, Mr. Wetzel said employees will have an opportunity to find a new position in the agency. But he acknowledged the closures could bring hardship to workers rooted in their communities.

"We're talking about employees with families, employees with lives outside corrections," he said. "I don't want to underplay the impact. We understand the impact."

Officials from all levels of government in Westmoreland County expressed disappointment about the Hempfield closure, which they said would affect the local economy, and dismay that they had learned of the decision only a day before it was made public.

Chuck Anderson, chairman of the Westmoreland County board of commissioners, said eliminating 370 prison jobs would have a similar impact to closing a manufacturing plant.

"Those are people that are buying groceries at the local stores," he said. "They're filling their cars up with gas, they're paying rent, they're buying property. All the things that are the engine of the economy of the region. It's going to be a major blow."

Mr. Anderson said he learned of the decision when a reporter called Tuesday night.

"I would have liked to have had some kind of warning that this was going to happen," he said. "To be totally blindsided -- and it sounds like this is a done deal, without even being consulted -- doesn't bode well."

Asked about complaints by local officials that they had little warning of the decision, Mr. Wetzel said that legislators told Tuesday of the closure were also warned that prison staff would not find out until Wednesday morning. He noted that some of those legislators then spoke with reporters.

"We gave them a day's notice and got punished for that," he said.

State Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, said: "Thanks for the day's notice. We would appreciate six months' notice."

"They think they gave us some big heads-up, so they gave us 18 hours' notice?" she said. "That's as out of touch as it gets."

Ms. Ward said she plans to call a hearing on why the administration chose to close the prison.

In explaining the administration's reasoning, Mr. Wetzel said the new Centre County prison, located alongside SCI Rockview, can house an inmate for about $80 per day, whereas SCI Cresson, built in 1913 as a tuberculosis sanatorium, cost an average of $103 a day and SCI Greensburg, which dates to 1969, costs $110 a day, the highest daily cost of a non-specialized facility.

"Greensburg has been on the chopping block, if you will, since the last administration," he said.

The new facility also will provide an environment better suited to corrections practices today, he said.

Many of the 1,400 inmates at SCI Cresson and the fewer than 1,000 at SCI Greensburg will be transferred to SCI Benner, which has the capacity for more than 2,000 inmates, while others will move to a new, 300-bed housing unit at the prison in Pine Grove in Indiana County.

Roy Pinto, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, said the union is willing to work with the administration to find savings. But he questioned the basis for closing any prison.

"This decision is based on a mammoth assumption that Pennsylvania's prison population will steadily decline after decades of increases," Mr. Pinto said in a statement. "Despite statements by the department of a declining prison population, the prison population has only experienced an annual decline three times in the last four decades.

"If these prisons are closed, the only thing certain is it will hurt thousands of families and devastate the local economies in those areas," he said.

Doug Weimer, chairman of the Hempfield board of supervisors, said he was concerned for the prison employees, the impact on a municipal budget that had been written anticipating taxes from those workers and the future of the prison site. Mr. Wetzel said only that the administration would explore options for the closed prisons.

A few streets away from SCI Greensburg, Jeanine DeGennaro, owner of DeGennaro's Restaurant & Lounge, said she expects to lose some business when the prison closes. But she was more concerned about the workers.

"I was sad to hear that 400 people are going to lose their jobs," she said. "Our area really hasn't had that much of a big hit from jobs in a while, in a few years."

state

Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com or 717-787-2141.


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