Lobbying begins to keep SCI Pittsburgh prison open
January 10, 2017 12:00 AM
First opened in 1882, the prison on the Ohio River in the Woods Run neighborhood was cleared of inmates in 2005
SCI Pittsburgh is in the city’s Woods Run neighborhood.
By Karen Langley / Harrisburg Bureau
HARRISBURG — If the Wolf administration names SCI Pittsburgh as one of the two prisons it plans to close this year, it won’t be the first time the prison known as Western Pen has been shut down.
First opened in 1882, the prison on the Ohio River in the Woods Run neighborhood was cleared of inmates, though maintained for possible future use — “mothballed,” in Department of Corrections parlance — in 2005, when state officials said housing the prisoners elsewhere would be more efficient.
But in 2007, as the state’s inmate population continued to increase, it was put back into operation. It now specializes in treating inmates with substance abuse problems, the department says.
When state officials announced Friday that they plan to shutter two state prisons by June 30, and that they are considering five for closure, the Department of Corrections noted in its written statement that both SCI Pittsburgh and SCI Waymart, in Wayne County, “present significant challenges for closure.”
SCI Pittsburgh serves as the reception center for inmates entering the state prison system from the western part of state. It also has an oncology unit.
“Transition of these services would be extremely difficult and the agency would incur significant additional costs,” the department stated.
Still, the Department of Corrections estimates that closing SCI Pittsburgh would generate nearly the highest savings of the five prisons under consideration. They estimate closing the prison would save $81 million annually, second only to $82 million in annual savings projected from closing SCI Waymart. The projected annual savings of closing the other prisons on the list range from $44 million to $46 million.
The plan to close prisons comes as Gov. Tom Wolf prepares to deliver his third budget address Feb. 7. Pennsylvania faces a growing budget shortfall, and Mr. Wolf has said that unlike in past years, he will not propose raising the personal income tax or sales tax to help fill the gap.
The Pittsburgh prison employs 555, with nearly 3 in 5 of the employees living in Allegheny County, according to the Department of Corrections. The population, according to a Jan. 5 DOC memo, was 1,921 inmates, the largest among the five prisons under consideration.
Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, wrote to Corrections Secretary John Wetzel on Monday to advocate for SCI Pittsburgh as a place that provides addiction treatment services and which has a specialized unit for veterans. He criticized the timeline for a final decision — an announcement of the two prisons chosen is expected Jan. 26 — and said he is preparing legislation that would require the Department of Corrections to hold a public hearing in a host community before closing a prison.
In an interview, Mr. Fontana noted the prison’s proximity to medical facilities.
“The location of Pittsburgh, because of our hospitals, is vital,” he said. “Folks want to be in Pittsburgh because they can get the treatment they need.”
Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Hill District, said it’s a great thing that the prison population is starting to decline. He said that facilitating visits from family members can help that trend.
“Keeping SCI Pittsburgh is better than closing it and sending most of those men, who are either from this area or from urban areas, out to places like Fayette and Greene County, which makes it very difficult for their families to stay connected with them,” Mr. Wheatley said.
Prisoner advocate Marion Damick, 91, who in September was honored by the Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board for her activism on behalf of the incarcerated, said in a phone interview that she hopes SCI Pittsburgh stays open.
“I think it’s run extremely well,” she said. “I would be very sorry to see them close it a second time.”
Karen Langley: firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley.
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