Tough decisions about spending will have to be made as legislators and Gov. Tom Wolf wrestle with a budget deficit that could reach $600 million by the end of this fiscal year and grow to $1.7 billion in the next. Entire state prisons are on the chopping block, and communities reliant on them surely will advocate as diligently as they can to keep theirs open at others’ expense. Such partisanship is only natural.
In deciding which facilities to close, however, state officials should disregard the politicking, cheerleading and arm-twisting and get down to business. Which prisons operate most efficiently and with the best outcomes for prisoners? Which would produce the greatest savings by closing? Can successful programs at those prisons be transferred or replicated elsewhere so that the state keeps the value and gains the savings? What expense would be involved in such transfer and replication?
The answers should be distilled into a taxpayer-friendly report that the Department of Corrections uses to justify the closing of two prisons by June 30. The answers also should guide the department’s future operations.
The department last week said it is looking to close two prisons and has five on a short list, including SCI Pittsburgh, better known as Western Pen, on the North Side. The state would save $81 million annually by closing Western Pen. That is second only to the $82 million annually that would be saved by closing SCI Waymart in Wayne County.
However, the state says it would be difficult to close either of those prisons because of the special roles that they play in the correction system. Western Pen, for example, serves as a reception center for prisoners entering the system from the western part of the state. It has an oncology unit. It specializes in treating inmates with addictions. The state says it would be difficult to spread those duties among other prisons.
That’s why it’s necessary to sort out the pluses and minuses, arrive at a conclusion and make a fact-based case to the public, as well as the legislators who will want to have a say in the matter. No decision will be perfect. But people can be convinced that one scenario is better than another. With a budget deficit looming, and more Pennsylvanians needing early childhood education and in-home care for intellectual disabilities, cuts have to be made somewhere.
It would be regrettable to lose the hundreds of jobs at Western Pen. On the other hand, if the county or city acquired the 24-acre property, a tremendous economic development opportunity would await there, a venture that would pour more money into the economy than a prison does. With the city’s business districts doing well, another site would be welcome.
Across the state, prisons should compete to operate most efficiently, post the lowest recidivism rates and develop the most innovative programs. The results, weighted to reflect differences in prison populations, should help to guide future decisions about prison closings or resource allocation.