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State prison closings: Where will the inmates go?

The state plans to close two of its prisons by June 30 in light of a “dire budget forecast,” the Department of Corrections announced Friday.

The department is looking at five prisons as candidates for 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.

It will announce its final decision Jan. 26.

“We have implemented a variety of cost savings initiatives over the past several years, yet we are again in the position where the Department of Corrections must make significant reductions because of the dire budget forecast,” Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said in a news release Friday. “The most significant reduction we can make as an agency is a prison closure.”

The exact dollar amount of that reduction will depend on which prisons close, Wetzel said during a press call, with three of the five valued at about $45 million in potential savings and two at $81 million.

The department is facing a $200 million deficit under Gov. Tom Wolf’s current proposed budget for the coming fiscal year, and the state as a whole has struggled to meet revenue projections this year, posing a financial challenge to programs across the state.

All current employees at the affected prisons will be offered positions elsewhere within the department, Wertzel said. 

The department also plans to cut the population of community corrections facilities – also known as halfway houses – in half by June 30.

Where will the inmates go?

The cuts will push about 2,500 inmates into other prisons throughout the state. That includes Camp Hill, which recently received engineer approval to open an additional 1,000 beds.

Critics have already lashed out against straining what they see as an already overcrowded system. 

“It’s mystifying why this administration would be closing prisons if we can’t even house the inmates we currently have,” the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association said in a statement. “With fewer prisons, a small system could literally burst at the seams, creating a public safety risk.”

The association quotes statistics deeming the state system at 103.8 percent of capacity. That figure would rise to about 109 percent after the closings.

Wertzel countered that those numbers only represent operational, or ideal, figures. When it comes to the actual number of beds – known as emergency capacity – the state is only at 87 percent of what it could accommodate.

“No. Not ideal,” Wertzel said in response to a reporter’s question during the press call. “But we’re not in ideal times.”

He noted that incarceration rates have also trended downward in recent years, which will further ease the burden on the state’s remaining 24 facilities.

Gov. Tom Wolf similarly defended the decision, saying the closings would help prevent cuts to education, job-creation programs and social services.

“I chose to invest in schools – not prisons – because it’s both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do,” he said in a statement Friday.

Wertzel maintained the closings were the best option to put a dent in the pending $200 million deficit – a number he still does not expect the system to meet, even after the cuts.

The plan to cut the population at halfway houses from about 3,000 to 1,500 beds could help the department save roughly an additional $40 million, he added.

The department will make those cuts by reducing the number of low-risk people at those facilities. Studies have shown that population is more likely to re-offend in the halfway house environment, Wertzel noted, and many are only in the halfway system because they do not have home plans.

The state expects to cut that number through its recently revamped housing voucher program, he said.

What happens to the employees?

Three of the five prisons under consideration for closure have roughly 400 employees each. Pittsburgh has 555, and Waymart has 709.

Wertzel believes every person at the affected prisons will have the opportunity to work elsewhere within the corrections department after the closings.

The system as a whole employs about 15,000 people, he said, and about 90 to 100 people retire per month. The system is also initiating a hiring freeze in anticipation of the closings.

Between that attrition and positions that will become available at other facilities, Wertzel believes everyone who wants a job will still have one come July 1.

How are they choosing the prisons?

The department focused on its smaller and older prisons as it narrowed down its list of potential sites to close, Wertzel said.

He acknowledged that three of the five – Retreat, Waymart and Frackville – are relatively close to each other, and shutting the doors at two of those three would have a greater negative impact than spreading the closings across the state. 

The department is working with groups like the Department of Economic and Community Development and the Department of Labor and Industry in an effort to lessen the economic impact on surrounding communities. This collaboration, he said, is a change from the way it went about closing prisons under past administrations.

The state is also considering the specific functions of each prison as it makes its decision. Waymart, for example, serves inmates with serious mental health conditions, while Pittsburgh is a diagnostic and classification center for incoming inmates and provides specialty medical services. Those functions would make them particularly challenging to close, Wertzel said.

A full breakdown of the potential impact of each closing is available on the Department of Corrections’ website.

The department’s decision to publicize which facilities were under consideration is also a deviation from the procedures it followed in 2013, when it announced the closings of prisons in Westmoreland and Cambria counties, Wertzel said.

“We did it poorly,” he said of those closings. “Now, we’re just trying to pull the curtain back.” 

Jennifer Wentz
Jennifer Wentz covers Lancaster County, York County, financial services, taxation and legal services. Have a tip or question for her? Email her at [email protected].

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