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January 31, 2013

SCI-Cresson workers air anger

CRESSON — The fear and hurt that  has grown since news of the SCI-Cresson closing hit earlier this month boiled over Thursday night at a public hearing held to give people impacted by the unexpected move, a chance to vent.

Lilly resident Garry Miklinski, a long- time corrections officer at the Cresson Township prison, got emotional as he tried to speak of the impact the closing is having on his family.

“I have a house here and a family here. I’m not going to Centre County,” he told state and county elected representatives who attended the hearing.

The reference to Centre County is SCI-Benner, the Bellefonte-area prison just completed, where many of the 1,500 Cresson inmates and more than 370 employees likely will end up.

Miklinski later told The Tribune-Democrat he has no idea how he’ll support his family, but it will not be by driving more than 100 miles a day.

Word that the state was closing Cresson and SCI-Greensburg leaked out Jan. 8. The official announcement from John Wetzel, secretary of the state Department of Corrections, came the next day.

The decision, said to have been made in December, also impacts 370 employees and 1,000 inmates at Greensburg.

Elected officials and speakers repeatedly expressed anger at how the decision was made to close the two institutions and how everyone found out.

One speaker said prison employees working in the dining hall learned of the closing from inmates who heard it on the local news at 5 p.m. on Jan. 8.

The Corrections Department’s handling of the situation, Miklinski told the crowd of 170 at the Cresson fire hall, is a violation of the code of ethics every employee must sign when hired.

“We agree to treat supervisors, fellow employees – even the inmates – with respect,” he said. “The respect I got was finding out on the news that I have to change my life.”

Adding further fuel to the fire was a letter circulated at Thursday’s hearing.

The letter from Wetzel, dated Jan. 9, assures inmates at Cresson and Greensburg that steps are being taken to ensure minimal programming interruption.

The letter infuriated many at the hearing. Cresson area resident G.F. Stevens said, “There is a letter of apology to the prisoners and they (the Corrections Department) said nothing to the workers at the prison.”

A hiring freeze, in place since December, will free up jobs at other corrections facilities across the state including SCI-Pine Grove in Indiana County. Concerns remain that there may not be enough jobs in the state’s prison system to absorb all of the transfers from Cresson and Greensburg.

At a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, Wetzel made it clear there is no turning back on the decision to close the prisons, which are viewed as antiquated and more expensive to operate than newer facilities.

But that doesn’t mean local legislators are not looking for a way to reverse the decision or at least give the people more time, state Sen. John Wozniak,

D-Westmont said.

“We’re working to delay it,” he said. “We’ve talked to our legal people about the potential of an injunction (to temporarily stop the closing), but they said that’s highly unlikely.”

Thursday’s hearing, scheduled the week after the closings were announced, was held to give employees of the prison and those impacted by the move a chance to sound off, said state Rep. Gary Haluska, D-Patton. It was billed as a House Democratic Policy Committee hearing, with Haluska and others hopeful the manner used to determine which prisons should close is more transparent in the future.

“If you feel like screaming, crying, whatever, I understand,” he said.

The state hopes to save

$23 million in the first year as a result of shuttering Cresson and Greensburg.

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