Pennsylvania Prison Closures Receive Major Attention

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett is hoping his state has turned over a new leaf, as he plans to cut his corrections budget by closing two prisons and canceling plans to reopen an old facility and build a new one. The state’s historical incarceration trend involved a constantly expanding prison population until the last three years, when it began to contract.

The plan involves closing State Correctional Institution (SCI) — Cresson, in Cambria County, and SCI — Greensburg, in Westmoreland County, within six months. Many of the 2,400 inmates from those two facilities would be transferred to the new SCI — Benner, in Centre County, which has 2,000 beds.

Cresson was built as a tuberculosis sanitarium in 1913 and later served as a state hospital before becoming a prison, while the Greensburg facility was completed in 1969.

Ironically, the new Benner facility was originally commissioned to help address a growing prison population but will now be used as part of a money-saving maneuver in response to a declining number of inmates. The new correctional facility was planned during former Governor Ed Rendell’s final term, which ended in 2011, before the dip in the state’s incarceration rate became a trend.

Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel supported the governor’s decision, telling a group of reporters at a news conference, “This is really an important step for the administration and the next step in our corrections reform.”

Wetzel projected that the move would save $23 million in the 2013-14 fiscal year, with that number increasing to $35 million per year in the longer term.

These moves don’t necessarily represent an immediate slowdown in the state’s correctional construction market, as the state is going forward with new construction to replace aging facilities. The new Benner correctional center was completed a year ago at a cost of $200 million and two new prisons are under construction. The state is spending $400 million to construct Phoenix East and West correctional facilities to replace Graterford State Prison, in Montgomery County.

The closures will represent a sizable life change for many of the employees that staffed the two older facilities, as 850 of them will be looking for work in other facilities or fields. There are 1,363 job openings in the state’s department of corrections but only 166 of them are within 50 miles of the Greensburg facility and only 127 are within that distance of the Cresson site.

Roy Pinto, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, said his organization was in favor of helping save the state money but didn’t agree this plan would do that.

“This decision is based on a mammoth assumption that Pennsylvania’s prison population will steadily decline after decades of increases,” Pinto said in a statement. “Despite statements by the department of a declining prison population, the prison population has only experienced an annual decline three times in the last four decades. If these prisons are closed, the only thing certain is it will hurt thousands of families and devastate the local economies in those areas.”