Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.
In an effort to cut costs, the state plans to close two prisons in western Pennsylvania by the end of June and open a new one in Centre County.
The state facilities in Cresson, Cambria County and Greensburg, Westmoreland County will be shuttered due to their age, says Corrections Secretary John Wetzel.
The last time the state closed a prison was in Pittsburgh in 2007, and it reopened in 2009, but Wetzel says the same won’t happen this time.
“We have no intention of reopening these facilities. Old facilities do not meet our needs,” said Wetzel. “We started early on, with saying, we’re going to replace old capacity with new capacity. It’s more efficient, it’s safer, it’s better to operate, and it meets our needs.”
The prisons set to close employ roughly 870 people. Wetzel said there are more than enough open positions throughout the state’s 27 prisons for these employees to land, and he noted that several institutions are within 60 miles of Greensburg and Cresson.
The inmates currently housed in the two prisons set to close could be transferred to the Benner Township prison in Centre County, which has been vacant since it was finished last year. Some could also be moved to an empty unit at a state prison in Indiana County.
Wetzel said factors like the decline of the state’s prison population over the past year and potential savings of $23 million in the next fiscal year led to the decision. But the state corrections officers’ union said the move needs more consideration, and suggested the recent drop in inmate numbers may be short-lived.
The state’s anticipated savings, both in the coming fiscal year and in the years to come, could be diminished the longer it takes to sell the prison facilities and find new positions for the people currently working in them.
Here’s the full statement from the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association:
PSCOA ISSUES STATEMENT ON INTENT TO CLOSE STATE PRISONS IN GREENSBURG, CRESSON
HARRISBURG, Pa. (Jan. 9, 2013) – Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association (PSCOA) president Roy Pinto today issued the following statement in response to the state Department of Corrections plan to close prisons in Greensburg, Westmoreland County and Cresson, Cambria County:
“We certainly understand that these are difficult economic times, and the PSCOA stands ready to work with the administration to achieve necessary cost savings measures. However, this decision affects public safety, working families and the economic future of two communities. It is only proper to vet this issue publicly.
“This decision is based on a mammoth assumption that Pennsylvania’s prison population will steadily decline after decades of increases. Despite statements by the department of a declining prison population, the prison population has only experienced an annual decline three times in the last four decades. With similar expectations, the state previously closed a state prison in Pittsburgh only to re-open it. It remains open to this day. If these prisons are closed, the only thing certain is it will hurt thousands of families and devastate the local economies in those areas.
“If left with no choice, the PSCOA will look at all available options. The commonwealth has a contractual obligation to give the PSCOA a reasonable notice of any planned major operational changes. The PSCOA was only informed of this decision this morning.”
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