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February 6, 2013

Cresson closure argued: Official cites decline in prison population

JOHNSTOWN — Pennsylvania’s judicial reform  legislation – Act 100 – reduced the state’s prison population more quickly than planned, generating the need to close SCI-Cresson and SCI-Greensburg, the state’s top prison official told The Tribune-Democrat’s Editorial Board Wednesday.

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said state officials became aware that the existing prison capacity, coupled with the newly built SCI-Benner in Centre County, would result in too much space when an examination of existing facilities began just months ago.

While the final decision to close Cresson and Greensburg was not made until December, the two institutions started getting a serious second look in September or October, Wetzel said.

“Even a year ago from now, there was no budget anticipation  that we’d be able to close a prison,” he said.

By June 30, the state plans to have all of the 1,500 inmates at Cresson and 1,000 inmates at Greensburg transferred to other institutions, with most expected to go to Benner.

Shutting the prisons will impact more than 500 employees at Cresson and about 370 at Greensburg, and has sent the Mainline communities into an economic tailspin.

The reforms focus on placing state parole violators back into prison, but at one of eight county facilities, including Cambria County Prison, where costs are lower.

In addition, significant emphasis is being placed on getting low-risk inmates out of prison on parole as soon as they have satisfactorily served their minimum sentence.

The reforms kicked into place in midsummer and results were nearly immediate, Wetzel said.

“We actually saw the population statistics dropping by 80 to 90 inmates a month,” he said.

“For the first time in a very long time, we saw significant population reductions, and that’s when we became aware Benner was going to be a replacement prison.”

The choice to close Cresson was not based on age of the buildings alone, he said of the facility, part of which remains from a century ago when the property served as one of the state’s three tuberculosis sanitoriums.

“We looked at everything that cost over $100 per day (per inmate) and that takes us down to a few,” Wetzel said.

Cost per inmate at Cresson is about $103 per day, and while costs at more than two dozen institutions are higher, they largely provide speciality services.

In this region, Laurel Highlands in Somerset County, a dialysis and hospice center, costs $138 per day. Pine Grove in Indiana County is for young offenders and costs $130 per day per inmate.

Of special concern to many SCI-Cresson employees and locals is the ongoing spending at the prison, with some estimating that $60 million has been invested at Cresson over the past decade.

But keeping the facilities operational is part of the responsibility of the department, the secretary said.

“We’ve made investments in every one of our old prisons,” he said.

On Tuesday, agreements between the state and the numerous unions representing corrections employees were signed, spelling out details of transfers, seniority and other issues, Wetzel said.

Between 50 and 100 of the total number of employees impacted by the Cresson and Greensburg closings likely will retire rather than take a transfer, he said. But a general number of the employees opting to transfer remains an unknown.

“I don’t really have a good grasp on that number,” Wetzel said when questioned about anticipated transfers.

Buyout plans to encourage early retirement from Cresson and Greensburg likely will not be an option because that would require legislation, he said.

Representatives of a number of state agencies will be brought into the area to inform employees of their options.

Still, a raw wound for many of the employees was the way news of the closing broke.

Wetzel said there was no excuse for the fact that much of the Cresson and Greensburg staff learned of the closings by way of the media a day before the Jan. 9 planned announcement.

But he defended a letter sent to all of the inmates impacted by the closings, a letter which has infuriated many in the Cresson area.

“The letter to the inmates was simply to describe the process,” Wetzel said. “I don’t see where there’s an apology in that letter.”

Meanwhile, the potential remains for a handful of jobs to remain at Cresson for security and general maintenance purposes, Wetzel said.

As of last week, word was these 15 or so jobs would be handled through a private contractor, but Wetzel said Wednesday his department will attempt to have the skeleton crew made up of existing employees.

“We’ll solicit proposals to do that, and if all things are equal we’ll go in the direction of the employees,” he said. “If there is significant savings (with a private contractor) we’ll go in that direction.”

Private providers are not a direction Wetzel sees the state headed in terms of prison operations, despite a push by Gov. Tom Corbett to privatize the lottery and state stores.

“There will not be privatization of the core function of corrections,” he said. “That’s something that we took off the table the first day of this administration.”

Representatives from the state Department of Labor and Industry, Department of General Services and Department of Community and Economic Development will meet with officials of the townships and boroughs most impacted by the closings to discuss possible reuses of the prisons, he said.

“We understand anytime you pull a $50 million to $60 million business out of a community, it’s going to have an impact,” he said of the annual cost of operating SCI-Cresson. “But there is the pressure of nobody wanting to spend more money on prisons.”

Wetzel began his career as a corrections officer in 1989 at the Lebanon County Correctional Facility. In 1992, he transferred to the Berks County Prison, where he served as a corrections officer, treatment counselor and moved in supervisory roles. In 2002, he was named warden of the Franklin County Jail and in 2007, appointed as corrections expert to the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons.

Corbett named Wetzel to head the state corrections department in late 2010.

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