The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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April 20, 2013

Building a prison may be unpopular, but losing one is even more painful

EBENSBURG — History shows that when a prison moves into an area, it can cause public backlash because of the element it generally attracts, but take a prison away, especially a state facility with 500 well-paying jobs, and the results can be extreme on the local economy.

Economic development officials know the value of prisons and the steady jobs they bring, but when one closes, as with SCI-Cresson, it’s the same as when a well-paying manufacturing plant or business shutters its doors, said state Sen. John Wozniak, D-Westmont.

“I don’t know if you can put a dollar bill on the loss of a prison to a  community,” said Wozniak, who learned of plans to close SCI-Cresson and SCI-Greensburg after the decision had been made. “I look at it as taking a factory out, one that employs 500 people, and then there is the impact of the vendors.”

Figures published last year by The Tribune-Democrat show that the three state prisons in Cambria and Somerset counties, the federal prison in Loretto and two local county prisons provide a combined annual payroll of $154 million. That means the payroll of Cresson alone reaches $40 million, and that likely is a conservative figure.

While many of those Cresson employees will continue to work for the state at other facilities, what is not known is how many will pull up roots and move closer to the those jobs, Wozniak said.

“They’re saying 85 percent have accepted jobs elsewhere in the system. How many of them will move? I don’t know,” he said.

The state Department of Corrections announced in early January that it is shuttering the Cresson and Greensburg facilities with many of the inmates moving to the recently completed SCI-Benner in Centre County.

Everyone should be out by the end of June, said John Wetzel, secretary of corrections.

To date, 317 of the employees at Cresson have accepted assignments at Benner, while 37 are going to Pine Grove in Indiana County and 16 are heading to Houtzdale in Clearfield County, according to Susan McNaughton, press secretary for the corrections department.

Three Cresson employees have taken jobs elsewhere, 30 have retired or resigned and 18 are pending retirement, she said.

Still at the Cresson facility is the Cresson Secure Treatment Unit, a facility for juvenile males that employs 75 people, all local, said spokesman David Ball.

The unit is privately operated through contract with the state Department of Public Welfare and depends on the state employees at SCI-Cresson for snow removal and grass cutting, Ball said.

Plans are to keep the unit at the facility with these outside services provided by a skeleton crew of 15 people that will remain to provide maintenance after the adult inmates are relocated, Ball said.

On a positive note, the other prisons in the region are thriving.

Aside from Cresson, boosting the region’s economy are SCI-Somerset with nearly 600 employees and just under 2,300 inmates, and SCI-Laurel Highlands with more than 500 employees and 1,400 inmates.

There are 253 employees at the federal prison in Loretto with nearly 1,500 inmates.

County prisons in Cambria and Somerset also offer steady work, with Cambria employing nearly 100 and a daily population of more than 400 inmates.

Somerset County Jail has about 45 employees and 100 inmates on average.

McNaughton points out that employment levels at the state prisons involve a whole lot more than corrections officers. The prison employs nurses, clerical workers, accountants, counselors and maintenance.

The Cresson facility has more than 30 buildings and sits on 500 acres of land at Cresson Summit – land donated more than a century ago by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.

The land is prime real estate, said Wozniak, who is involved in finding an economic engine to fill the site.

With upgraded municipal water and sewer service, the site is just off Route 22. It is in the hands of the state General Service Administration.

County Commissioner Douglas Lengenfelder, also involved in the search, said a number of possibilities are in the works. While too early for public discussion, Lengenfelder’s face brightened when asked about the potential.

“There is a group of us that are working diligently to find an economic situation for Cresson,” he said. “More details to come.”

Wozniak said he doesn’t anticipate much movement until after the last of the inmates have been moved.

“It’s a large tract of land and I’m leaving no stone unturned,” he said.

 

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