Closing of area prisons to cost 870 jobs

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HARRISBURG -- The more than 850 employees of the two Western Pennsylvania prisons slated to close by this summer are outnumbered by corrections vacancies statewide, but many of those posts are beyond commuting distance from their current jobs.

When state Corrections Secretary John Wetzel announced the decision earlier this week to shutter the prisons -- explaining inmates could be kept more efficiently and safely at a new prison in Centre County -- he noted that both affected prisons have neighboring institutions where employees can seek work.

The 370 workers at the State Correctional Institution Greensburg in Hempfield and 500 at SCI Cresson in Cambria County can soon take their first steps toward a new post.

Between current statewide vacancies and the need for workers to run the new prison opening in Centre County, the Department of Corrections has 1,363 corrections openings, according to Susan McNaughton, a department spokeswoman. The number of available jobs was bolstered by a decision, made with the closings in mind, to freeze hiring in early December, Mr. Wetzel said.

But the five state prisons within approximately 50 miles of the Greensburg prison have only 166 openings, according to lists of neighboring institutions and system-wide vacancies provided by the department. Those jobs are at the Fayette, Pittsburgh, Pine Grove, Somerset and Laurel Highlands prisons.

Within approximately 50 miles of the Cresson site are the Houtzdale, Huntingdon and Smithfield prisons, and the Pine Grove and Laurel Highlands prisons, according to the department. Those five facilities have 127 total job openings.

Both tallies include Pine Grove and Laurel Highlands. The total number of openings within 50 miles of the two closing prisons, counting the two overlapping institutions only once, is 241, according to the department data.

The new Centre County prison, SCI Benner, by SCI Rockview in Bellefonte, is approximately 63 miles from Cresson and 130 miles from Greensburg, according to the Department of Corrections. The new prison will have 552 job openings.

Those totals account for all openings, not the positions for which an individual worker might be qualified or interested.

Members of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association working at the closing prisons will be given questionnaires asking them to rank their preference of other state prisons at which they would be willing to work, according to Roy Pinto, president of the union. Workers must postmark their responses by Jan. 22, the letter says.

New positions will be assigned according to seniority, Mr. Pinto said.

At the Greensburg state prison, PSCOA local president Lance Burkholder said he was cutting firewood at his home Tuesday evening when phone calls alerted him to reports the prison would close.

"When we started seeing the news on Tuesday, obviously people went into panic mode," he said. " 'They're closing the jail, we're losing our jobs, what are we going to do?' We had no answers at that point in time. We had no idea what the Department of Corrections' ideas were for us."

He said news reports have led to a "popular misconception" that workers will be offered jobs within 50 miles of the prison. But he said agency officials told union leaders that workers could fill only vacant positions.

The Department of Corrections has said since the closings became public Wednesday that it will try to match workers with nearby positions but that employees are not guaranteed jobs within a particular distance.

region

Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-2141.


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