Wetzel: Prison staff learning of closures from media, not officials was 'inappropriate'

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HARRISBURG -- Response was fierce when local officials and labor leaders learned two weeks ago that the Corbett administration plans to close two Western Pennsylvania prisons, and a Senate hearing Tuesday yielded one point of broad agreement.

"The way that the staff found out -- primarily by TV -- is just inappropriate," said Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, who told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he takes responsibility for the manner in which prison workers learned that their places of employment, in Hempfield and in Cresson, Cambria County, will close by summer.

With new corrections policies projected to reduce the state prison population in coming years, the administration announced Jan. 9 it would reduce corrections costs by $23 million next year by replacing the two prisons with State Correctional Institute Benner, a newly completed prison in Centre County.

The bulk of inquiries at the Senate hearing accepted that the administration was right to contain corrections spending, which, until the current budget, had increased each year for more than a decade.

Instead, senators questioned the manner in which the administration communicated with areas affected by the decision.

Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria, was blunt in his criticism.

"Your notification sucked," Mr. Wozniak said, prompting applause from members of the audience.

Workers have complained they learned of the closures on the news when word leaked the day before the public announcement.

Later, Mr. Wetzel told reporters that if he could do it over again, he would notify employees at the same time as legislators.

But Mr. Wozniak expressed irritation at a lack of communication that predated the decision on the two sites.

"You guys put your numbers together and made a decision," he said. "I can understand that, but I'm very frustrated."

Mr. Wetzel told reporters afterward that the administration should have invited communities to advocate for their prisons -- critical centers of employment and ancillary economic activity -- to remain open.

"You always get attacked for having politics play a role in making these decisions," he said. "I'm sure that had we gone around and talked, everybody would have done their pitch. But again, you take a 50 million dollar business out of any area, it has a big impact."

The Hempfield prison, SCI Greensburg, employs 370 people, while the Cresson prison employs 500 people, according to the administration. Those workers are outnumbered by vacancies in the state corrections system, although many of the posts are beyond commuting distance from the closing prisons.

Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, complained of the Tuesday deadline for workers at the two prisons to tell the corrections system where they would like to be placed for a new job.

"I just think the way these employees are being treated is terrible," Ms. Ward said. In addition to a lack of information, she said: "You're asking people to move their entire lives and make a change, and you're giving them, I don't know, 11 days to make decisions."

Mr. Wetzel told lawmakers that collecting employee preferences would allow the agency to move forward in giving permanent assignments. He indicated later that he would consider the idea of extending the process, but he said a delay could threaten a hiring freeze put in place to make jobs available for workers at the closing facilities.

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


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