The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

January 21, 2013

State Senate hearing to focus on decision to shut prisons

Kathy Mellott

— Few people are holding out much hope that the state Department of Corrections will reverse its decision and keep the state prisons at Cresson or Greensburg open, but one local official hopes policy can be changed that might ease the pain in future closings of other state prisons and facilities.

State Sen. John Wozniak, D-Westmont, will be part of a hearing today called by the Senate Judiciary Committee in the hope of learning more about the process used by Corrections Secretary John Wetzel in choosing to shutter Cresson and Greensburg and the calculations used to determine a projected $23 million savings.

The hearing was ordered by Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, in response to concerns raised by Wozniak and Sen. Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland.

"I think they've made the decision. I don't know how firm it is, but we want to look at these couple areas," Greenleaf told the Tribune-Democrat. "We want to look at the decision-making process."

The Corrections Department plans to have all inmates moved out of the two prisons by the end of June, a goal that includes all of the corrections officers and other employees who seek transfer to other facilities.

Most of the inmates are to be relocated to newly completed SCI-Benner near State College or SCI-Pine Grove near Indiana.

Ironically, today – the day of the Senate hearing – also is the postmark deadline for Cresson and Greensburg DOC employees to return surveys listing their preferences for relocation.

But the moving has already begun. Corrections officers told The Tribune-Democrat that all or nearly all of the inmates in a mental-health wing at Cresson were transferred last week.

Citing security concerns, the Corrections Department does not make inmate transfer information public.

While Wozniak is not a member of the Judiciary Committee, he will be part of today’s probe.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to participate in the hearing,” Wozniak said. “The (DOC’s) plan has raised, a lot of questions in my district and I’m looking forward to posing them to the decision-makers.”

Wozniak said he had no prior hint of the potential Cresson closing when, late in the day on Jan. 8, he learned about it from a reporter seeking comment.

The next day DOC made the formal announcement.

Wozniak termed the decision as “secretive and cagey,” making him suspicious of how the plan would stand up under public scrutiny.

Also attending the hearing will be Roy Pinto, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association.

“Do I expect the Senate hearing to stop it? No,” Pinto said.

Pinto told a couple of hundred Cresson corrections officers last week that the only ones who can stop the closings are Wetzel or Gov. Tom Corbett, a move he did not expect from either.

“History shows that government has closed many sites over the years, and although many labor unions have protested and public hearings commenced and closed with little or no success at keeping the sites open,” Pinto wrote in a letter made avaliable to The Tribune-Democrat.

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