The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

January 9, 2013

Cresson in shock: Prison closing jolts town

CRESSON — Karen Merva was reworking the family budget Wednesday, trying to find $300 a month for gas and a way to get a better vehicle for her husband, Lee, to drive to the new state prison in Centre County.

The Mervas moved here from Laurel, Md., 19 years ago when Lee was hired as a corrections officer at SCI-Cresson. On Tuesday evening, he was at work when he happened to see a television newscast announcing the state is closing the prison, a mile from his home.

“It’s not fair how the employees found out about it. It was just such a shock,” Karen Merva said from the family’s home in the 400 block of Eighth Street, Cresson Borough.

Officials and residents of the Cresson area, including the Mervas, were in disbelief Wednesday as word spread that the state Department of Corrections will shut SCI-Cresson.

The department’s goal is to relocate all of the estimated 1,500 inmates by June 30.

The closing of the Cresson Township facility will impact more than 500 employees there and will be included in the closing of SCI-Greensburg in Westmoreland County, which has fewer than 1,000 inmates and 370 people, figures spelled out in a statement by state Corrections Department Secretary John Wetzel.

“These are excellent paying jobs. Everything is being thrown into disarray,” said Cresson Mayor Patrick Mulhern.

“People will lose their homes, they will lose their cars.”

News of the closing first spread late Tuesday afternoon via an email released to reporters by state Sen. John Wozniak, D-Westmont, a day before the state was to make its announcement.

“It’s all such a surprise. Most of these people found out about it through the news media,” said Cresson Township Supervisors Chairman Scott Decoskey.

Wetzel confirmed Wednesday at a Harrisburg news conference that the Cresson and Greensburg prisons are closing.

Inmates are to be relocated to the recently completed state prison in Benner Township, Centre County, and a new, 300-bed unit that is to be opened at SCI-Pine Township in Indiana County.

Rumors of a closing surfaced at Cresson a couple of months ago, but the employees were assured by the union and the prison superintendent that no such plans were in the works, Karen Merva said.

The announcement did not go as planned, and Wetzel said he feels badly about that, Corrections Department spokeswoman Susan McNaughton said.

“The secretary is upset that he caused the employees to be upset,” she said. “We did not set out to notify the media before we notified our employees.”

Tradition has it that state legislators impacted by a major move such as a prison closing are notified first, she said.

The process of closing the Cresson and Greensburg prisons will begin in a few weeks, McNaughton said.

“I think we’re going to see things at Benner moving relatively quickly,” she said.

Prison ‘antiquated’

The age of the Cresson facility had to play a huge role in the state’s decision, said Mike Lieb of Ebensburg, who worked as a municipal police officer 30 years ago.

“I think it’s a shame that it’s being closed, but the facility is antiquated,” Lieb said as he sorted cardboard at the Cresson Township recycling site.

William DiMascio, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, said that the closure of Cresson and Greensburg came as no surprise to him.

While Greensburg would be at the top of his list for closure, Cresson is not far behind.

“There has been a lot of evolution in prison architecture and how it impacts on staff. A lot of these prisons require a lot of people just to keep an eye on everyone,” he said.

Figures provided by McNaughton show that SCI-Cresson, originally built in 1913 as a tuberculosis sanatorium, costs state taxpayers an average of $103 per day per inmate.

SCI-Greensburg, opened in 1969 as a regional correctional facility, is even higher at $110.

Costs at Benner will run $80 per day per inmate.

Potential savings to taxpayers is $23 million in fiscal 2013-14 and more in future years, Wetzel said.

The availably of jobs at other state-owned facilities likely will not be a problem, McNaughton said, because of a hiring freeze imposed by the secretary in December.

Loose ends

The future of a water tank belonging to the Cresson Township Water Authority and housed on state prison property could not be determined Wednesday.

Decoskey's concern is that the township will be forced to immediately find a new location for the tank, which serves one-third of the township’s residential water customers.

Also unknown is the future of the Cresson Secure Treatment Unit, a facility operated by the Justice Resource Institute, a private New England-based company, through a contract with the state Department of Public Welfare.

The center, which is located on state prison property at Cresson and provides treatment for violent offenders, had not been notified of the state’s decision by late Wednesday.

“Justice Resource Institute has not been informed of any upcoming changes to the Cresson Secure Treatment Unit,” spokesman David Ball said. “We anticipate that the program will continue to operate as it has.”

Chuck Felton, a Texas resident who spent time as a high school senior at the TB sanatorium in the 1950s, said he is pleased that he and a few others had an opportunity to visit the Grace Chapel on the prison grounds in 2011.

He is hopeful that efforts will be made to save a time capsule that was buried at the chapel in 1917 depicting the San as it was at that time.

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