State prison closings: Senate committees set hearing to examine impact

Jennifer Wentz//January 12, 2017

State prison closings: Senate committees set hearing to examine impact

Jennifer Wentz//January 12, 2017

The hearing will let members of the Senate Majority and Democratic Policy Committees and Senate Judiciary Committee examine the potential impact of the closings, including costs, safety concerns, transparency, prison overpopulation and impact on local communities, committee leaders announced Wednesday.

It will also give community representatives a chance to present their case for keeping their facilities open.

“We need to put everything on the table and figure out how and why the administration chose the five prisons they did,” Senate Majority Policy Committee Chairman David G. Argall (R-Schuylkill/Berks) said in a news release. “We want to bring transparency to this process that could have a major impact on a lot of people.”

The Department of Corrections announced last week that it planned to close two prisons by June 30 in light of a “dire budget forecast.” It is considering five prisons for possible closure: SCI Mercer in Mercer County, SCI Retreat in Luzerne County and SCI Frackville in Schuylkill County, SCI Waymart in Wayne County and SCI Pittsburgh in Allegheny County.

The announcement elicited calls from some Republicans and Democrats alike for officials to look more closely at the impact the closings would have on each community before they announce a final decision Jan. 26.

“I respect the Wolf Administration’s efforts to improve government efficiency and reduce state spending,” said Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chair Lisa Boscola (D-Northampton/Lehigh). “This joint bipartisan hearing is a key step in the decision-making process as we discuss all factors with stakeholders.”

State officials focused on their smaller and older prisons as they narrowed down the list of potential sites to close, Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said Friday.

The department also released a breakdown of the costs associated with each facility and is working with groups like the Department of Economic and Community Development and the Department of Labor and Industry to lessen the economic impact on surrounding communities, Wertzel said.

The Department of Corrections has also tried to increase transparency during this round of closings by announcing which facilities it is considering for the chopping block, Wertzel noted. 

Still, some officials in Mercer, Luzerne, Schuylkill, Wayne and Allegheny counties have called for the state to double check its calculations before rushing to a decision.

“This decision is too important to be made unilaterally or behind closed doors,” Sen. Michele Brooks, a Republican who represents several counties near SCI Mercer, said in a news release regarding the hearing. “Public involvement, accurate information and transparency are musts.”

The hearing will take place 9:30 a.m., Jan. 23 in Hearing Room No. 1 of the North Office Building in the state Capitol.

More information, including the agenda and testimony, will be posted to the Senate Majority Policy Committee’s website.