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January 8, 2013

Top 10 of 2013 | Cresson prison to close

Wozniak confirms governor's plans

JOHNSTOWN — State prisons in Cresson and Greensburg will close when a new Centre County facility opens, state Sen. John Wozniak, D-Westmont, said Tuesday.

Wozniak said a member of Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration delivered the news to him earlier in the day.

A department spokeswoman declined comment when contacted by the Associated Press, but Corrections Secretary John Wetzel has scheduled a press conference for this morning.

SCI-Benner in Centre County cost nearly $200 million to build, but it’s been vacant so far. Wozniak said the prisons that will close are state correctional institutions at Greensburg in Westmoreland County and Cresson in Cambria County.

Wozniak said most prisoners from Cresson and Greensburg will be moved to Benner.

“I told them my concern is about the corrections officers and people who work there,” Wozniak said. “I was told they are trying to find them jobs at places within 50 miles of the place they work now.”

Consolidating inmates from the two aging lockups into Benner should save taxpayers money, Wozniak said.

“I think they are looking at the overall cost of the facility,” he said.

Wozniak said many area businesses depend on the prison.

“I also asked them about local contractors,” he said. “I want to make sure they have a chance to bid, because State College is not that far away.”

SCI-Cresson opened in 1987 after a $17 million transformation of the former Cresson Center. The complex opened in 1913 as Cresson Sanatorium for tuberculosis patients.

The prison’s original 484 cells were expanded to house more than 1,500 prisoners in recent years. As of May, SCI-Cresson had 524 employees and 1,585 inmates.

And in the process, it’s become a mammoth employer in the Cresson area.

“It’s one of the few big employers in the area. They employ a lot of local people and they pay well. You don’t see that very often these days,” said Cresson Township supervisors Chairman Scott Decoskey, who recalled touring the new facility as a teenager in 1987.

News of a possible closure is a shock, he said.

In recent months, the township has been working with the state prison to build a new water tank to replace an aged, problematic one.  The tank supplies nearly one-third of the township, Decoskey said. It also sends water to the state prison, the Cresson area water authority’s largest customer.

It’s just one indicator of the presence the jail has locally, he added.

“They’re part of the community,” Decoskey said. “People who work there use the businesses in town. Visitors drive through town and shop. It’s more than just the people inside.”

“The thought it could be closing,” he said, “It hurts.”

The closing could also affect water rates for customers in the Cresson Township Municipal Authority system, engineer Richard Wray said.

“Fifty percent of the authority’s water sales come from the prison,” Wray said. “They contribute a fair amount of revenue to the authority’s annual budget.”

The economic impact of state prisons was described in the  spring by Linda Thomson, president of Johnstown Area Regional Industries, in a story for Vision 2012, The Tribune-Democrat’s annual business and industry project.

“Having these prison positions is important to our region,” Thomson said in April. “First of all, they’re recession-proof, or likely to be there, and these jobs are highly sought after. They’re family-sustaining jobs, so good for the economy.”

Sen. Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, told the Associated Press she would call for hearings on the move, which she criticized as lacking in transparency.

“I’m going to do whatever I can do to get answers and make sure the process is open and understand why this decision was made, how they came to it,” Ward said.

The labor union that represents prison guards, the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, said it hadn’t been told about the plans.

“If this is the case, the PSCOA was not consulted and will look at all options,” union president Roy Pinto said in a statement. “Such closings will hurt thousands of families and devastate the local economies in those areas.”

SCI-Benner can hold about 2,000 inmates.

The Greensburg prison was built in 1969 and houses 988 inmates, according to the department.

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