The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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January 10, 2013

Local group protests prison plan

JOHNSTOWN — The Greater Johnstown Regional Partnership is calling on Gov. Tom Corbett to reconsider the decision announced this week to close the State Correctional Institution at Cresson.

Citing the devastating impact the loss of more than 500 jobs will have on the Cambria region, the letter, outlined in a press release from the partnership, is asking the governor to establish a commission to study current prison needs and the facilities available.

While the leaders comprising the partnership said they understand the need to save money in light of difficult economic times, avenues other than closing the prison should be considered.

“We know you are under extreme pressure to balance our state budget,” the letter stated.

“The closing of the facility, while it may have benefit to the Department of Corrections line in the budget, (it) will have a tremendous negative impact on the region and commonwealth.”

State Sen. John Wozniak, D-Westmont, who learned of SCI-Cresson’s demise earlier this week via an Associated Press reporter, said he wants to know what went into reaching the decision to shutter Cresson, forcing the relocation of 1,500 inmates to other facilities and impacting  more than 500 employees.

“We’d like to sit down and learn how, when and why we got here,” he said Thursday from Harrisburg.

He joined state Sen. Kim Ward,

R-Westmoreland, in calling for Senate hearings in the hopes of getting answers to why Cresson and Greensburg were targeted for closure.

But Wozniak said he sees the clock on Cresson ticking far too quickly.

Plans are to have both facilities mothballed by June 30, Susan McNaughton, state Department of Corrections spokeswoman, said. The relocation of inmates and employees likely will start in a matter of weeks, she said.

Along with reversing the decision to shut the prison, the regional partnership is asking Corbett to delay its closing for

12 months.

“This badly needed time will give our local region some time to prepare for this devastating impact,” according to the two-page letter.

The leaders cited the multiple effects of losing these types of jobs on a region and said the loss of those jobs will be devastating, taking generations to overcome.

In an apparent surprise to many, the state Department of Corrections formally announced Wednesday it is closing the prison facilities in Cresson and Greensburg in a move that will save $23 million in fiscal 2013-2014 and more in years to come.

Many of the displaced inmates will be shifted to the recently completed prison in Benner Township, Centre County, and the displaced employees were told they will have the opportunity to transfer there or likely to SCI-Pine Grove in Indiana County.

State Rep. Gary Haluska,

D-Patton, expressed anger about how notification of the closing was handled. But more importantly, he said, he is concerned that this decision will devastate the region’s economy and many of its families and businesses.

“This decision will impact thousands of people in Cresson and surrounding communities,” Haluska said.

He questioned the administration’s justification for the decision to close Cresson, saying it is using a “shortsighted view of costs.”

He cited the high unemployment rates of Cambria and Westmoreland counties, some of the highest in the state, questioning the wisdom of moving those jobs to an area with one of the lowest unemployment rates in Pennsylvania.

The well-documented prosperity of the Centre County region was not lost on members of the partnership.

“If anything, your administration should be looking at ways to bring more jobs to Cambria County,” the leaders wrote.

The Cambria County commissioners, at their meeting Thursday, said they are concerned about the economic impact of losing Cresson and are continuing to monitor the situation.

“It will be a challenge to the Cresson area and all Cambria County,” Commissioner Mark Wissinger said.

Commissioner Tom Chernisky said he would like to see the state delay the closure for

12 months to give people a chance to adjust.

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