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January 22, 2013

Prison closing process faulted

HARRISBURG — State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, a Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Pennsylvania has not had much experience closing prisons and that inexperience likely contributed to bungling by the Department of Corrections when it came to notifying the community and its own employees about the plan to shutter SCI-Cresson and SCI-Greensburg.

At a Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday on the plan to close the two prisons, union representatives and lawmakers said that in some cases, guards learned that their prisons were closing from the news media. Other guards heard about the closing from inmates.

About 800 prison employees will be affected by the closings. Those workers are eligible to transfer to other jobs in the system of prisons, but by Tuesday it was still not clear how many vacancies there will be and where those vacancies will exist.

State Sen. John Wozniak,

D-Westmont, said that if a private employer were going to be abruptly close a factory and put 500 people out of jobs, state officials would be scrambling to find the workers retraining opportunities or otherwise help them.

“We should be doing the same thing for our own employees,” Wozniak said.

Wozniak said he may file an injunction to try to delay the prison closings, a move that he doubts will have much lasting effect.

“We are just trying to buy time,” Wozniak said after the committee hearing.

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel defended the decision to close the prisons, saying it was driven by data analysis, but apologized for the manner in which employees learned that they were being displaced.

“We did not do (notification) well. I take sole responsibility for that,” Wetzel said. “There is no playbook for this.”

The apology did little to soothe union officials or lawmakers who are scrambling to help workers make the difficult decision to try to land jobs in other state prisons or lose their jobs entirely.

The Corrections Department has indicated that replacing SCI-Cresson and SCI-Greensburg with the brand-new SCI-Benner in Centre County will save $23 million a year. The roughly 2,400 inmates at the prison will be moved to Benner, as well as other prison sites in the state where expanded housing units have not yet been put to use.

The Senate hearing was the first time the Corrections Department disclosed that maintenance of the shuttered prisons could be handled by private contractors instead of state workers.

When discussing security and maintenance plans for the vacant facilities, Wetzel said “zero” current employees would remain.

Officials also revealed that plans to close the two prisons had been developing for months and were complete in December. In the interim, municipal budgets were completed and employees purchased homes without knowing that the state had decided to close the prisons.

A prison employee stood up and addressed the Senate panel, saying that he was frustrated because Wetzel left the hearing after testifying and did not stay to hear the union’s testimony.

Approached after the hearing, the prison employee declined to give his name and said he was barred from speaking publicly.

State Sen. Kim Ward, a Republican from Westmoreland County, questioned when the Corrections Department had decided to close the prisons, considering staff and the public were not notified until earlier this month.

Ward noted that prison data indicate that the Corrections Department began moving inmates out of SCI-Cresson and SCI-Greensburg last summer.

Corrections data show that the number of prisoners housed at SCI-Cresson declined by 185 between January and December of 2012. During the same period, the population at SCI-Greensburg declined by 111.

The Department of Corrections has implemented a system-wide hiring freeze to help create vacancies for staff displaced by the closings at the two prisons.

SCI-Benner soon will be completely finished. Wetzel said that it makes sense to do the shift now so that the new prison can be occupied in time to discover any problems that could be corrected by construction warranties.

Union officials, on the other hand, argue that abruptly closing the two prisons based on a short-term decline in prison population may be jumping the gun. State officials have attributed the decline in prison population to changes in state law that parole prisoners in a timely manner and incarcerate nonviolent offenders in county prisons.

Gary Lightman, solicitor for the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officer Union, said the state ought to consider adopting the model of community notification employed by the federal government in dealing with events such as the closing of military bases. In those cases, a public announcement of potential closings identifies multiple sites that could be shut. After public comment and studies, the list is winnowed until the final sites pegged for closing are announced.

Lightman said the abrupt announcement in this case has created numerous problems. He said he was told by two prison employees that they recently purchased homes under first-time homebuyer programs that require them to remain in the homes for five years. But with the planned closings, those workers will have to either face long commutes to continue living in those homes, abandon their prison jobs or violate the terms of the first-time homebuyer program.

In another case, a prison employee was transferred to SCI-Greensburg in December only to learn that the prison was closing.

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