State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Katie Meyer covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

The political implications of closing SCI Pittsburgh

Written by Katie Meyer, Capitol Bureau Chief | Jan 26, 2017 5:19 PM
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SCI Pittsburgh first opened in 1882, and is the oldest prison in the commonwealth. It was briefly decommissioned from 2005 to 2007, but reopened when Pennsylvania's prison population rebounded. (Photo by AP)

(Harrisburg) -- The Wolf administration is shutting down Pennsylvania's oldest prison--SCI Pittsburgh--capping nearly a month of intense arguments that followed the initial closure notice.

Closing prisons is an innately political decision. The administration's explanation was that inmate populations are falling, and reducing operating costs will help address a ballooning financial deficit.

Two prisons were initially on the chopping block, to be chosen from a pool of five: SCI Pittsburgh, Waymart, Frackville, Retreat, and Mercer.

In hearings, conferences, and rallies leading up to the state's decision, representatives for those five prisons' districts had a near-universal response: don't do it here.

Following the official announcement that Pittsburgh is the facility getting shuttered, many of the initial dissenters released statements saying they're pleased their own prisons haven't been shut down.

Democratic Senator Wane Fontana represents the portion of Allegheny County where SCI Pittsburgh is. He said he is, of course, unhappy that his prison is getting the boot.

He noted, he suspects the fact that it's a liberal district may have made closing Pittsburgh less politically dangerous for Wolf.

"Only one closed and it's in a democratic area," he said. "I think the last time [the state closed prisons] two closed, one in each. So does that help him politically? Help the governor? It's hard to tell."

The administration and state Department of Corrections said Pittsburgh was chosen because it's an old, large facility in an area with a relatively strong economy. It houses nearly 2,000 inmates and employs over 500 people.

The administration also predicted that closure will save the state 81 million dollars, without laying off any of those employees.
Fontana said that sounds a little unrealistic.

"75 million dollars of their expenses at SCI Pittsburgh is in salaries. Well, how do you save 81 million if you don't save it in salaries?" he asked.

The DOC did not confirm how much of SCI Pittsburgh's budget is devoted to salaries. The state allocated over $2 billion for prison operations this year.

It's unclear how much of the projected savings the commonwealth could see within the 2016/17 fiscal year. The Department of Corrections has said it aims to have the prison empty by July--the start of the next fiscal cycle.

This year's budget shortfall is estimated to be over $7 million.

Published in News, State House Sound Bites

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