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Wolf to close Pittsburgh State Prison to save $80M annually

Written by Marc Levy and Mark Scolforo/The Associated Press | Jan 26, 2017 12:32 PM
Pittsburgh_prison_sci.jpg

FILE PHOTO: Signs warning those entering the State Correctional Institution-Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

(Harrisburg) -- The Wolf administration said Thursday it will close Pittsburgh State Prison to save money at a time when inmate numbers are dropping and the state faces a huge budget deficit, but has opted against an earlier plan to also shut down a second facility.

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said the 1,900-inmate prison will close by the end of June, producing a net annual savings of about $81 million.

The administration had previously said it was considering closing two prisons from a list of five -- Pittsburgh, Frackville, Mercer, Retreat and Waymart -- but ultimately decided to shut down just one.

Pittsburgh, which first opened in 1882, posed a challenge to shut down because it serves as a diagnostic and classification center, as well as housing medical services such as a cancer treatment unit. Wetzel said those issues were worked out.

"While we initially felt that closing SCI Pittsburgh would present challenges for closure, upon review of the information, we feel confident that those challenges can be mitigated by relocating the services and specialized units to other facilities," Wetzel said.

Pittsburgh's programs also include therapeutic communities for people battling substance abuse, a veterans' service unit and a hemophilia unit that treats six inmates.

The state inmate population is about 49,000 and has fallen by 2,400 since mid-2012. There are currently 26 prisons.

The plan also involves doing away with about 1,500 halfway-house beds, many occupied by recent parolees who lack living alternatives.

The changes are part of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's strategy to address a massive budget hole.

"The growing size and cost of our prisons system has gone unaddressed for too long -- rising to more than $2 billion and threatening funding for programs that the people of Pennsylvania want: education, senior care and jobs and training programs," Wolf said in a statement.

The prison is in the district of state Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Allegheny, who called the process to close it hasty and flawed, and said prison staff and the regional economy will be hurt.
Jason Bloom, president of the Pennsylvania state corrections officers' union, asked the Legislature to establish guidelines for closing prisons in the future.

"Communities were given only weeks to fight each other to stay open," Bloom said. "Now, inmates will be stacked like cordwood into a system that is bursting at 104.7 percent capacity, despite aggressive efforts to reduce the prison population."

All the 555 people who work at Pittsburgh State Prison will be offered jobs elsewhere within Corrections. Inmates will be transferred to other facilities.

The State Correctional Institution-Pittsburgh, also known as Western Pen, is on the Ohio river just north of downtown. It was closed down in 2005 but re-opened two years later.

Two prisons closed in 2013, Cresson State Prison and Greensburg State Prison. Phoenix State Prison is now under construction alongside an existing prison, Graterford, outside Philadelphia. When it opens, Graterford will close.

An earlier story is below:

A state senator says the Wolf administration plans to close Pittsburgh State Prison to save money at a time when inmate numbers are dropping.

Senator Wayne Fontana tells The Associated Press Democratic Governor Tom Wolf disclosed during a phone call this morning that Pittsburgh was slated for closure on June 30th.

The administration had previously said it was considering closing two prisons, but Fontana says the final decision was to shutter just one.

"The growing size and cost of our prisons system has gone unaddressed for too long - rising to more than $2 billion and threatening funding for programs that the people of Pennsylvania want: education, senior care and jobs and training programs" Governor Wolf said in a statement,   "Prison population is declining and that is a good thing because it means criminal justice reforms are working. We must continue to pursue smart reforms that reduces the burden on taxpayers and protect our investments in education and drug treatment to keep people out of prison where we will spend $40,000 each to house, feed and care them.

But, Jason Bloom, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, was critical of the process.

""This process was not transparent. Agreeing to attend a legislative hearing and do a few editorial board meetings after you decide to close a prison isn't being transparent. It's absurd for this administration to claim otherwise," he said.  "Communities were given only weeks to fight each other to stay open. Now, inmates will be stacked like cordwood into a system that is bursting at 104.7 percent capacity, despite aggressive efforts to reduce the prison population.

The number of state inmates has fallen by 2,400 since mid-2012.

State officials had announced earlier this month that five prisons were among those that could close.

At that time, they said closing Pittsburgh posed a challenge because it serves as a diagnostic and classification center, as well as housing medical services such as a cancer treatment unit.

 

*This story was edited to include Gov. Wolf's statement.

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