Pennsylvania Seeks to Formalize Prison Closure Process

By Eric Althoff

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Gov. Tom Wolf signed a new bill into law in the Keystone State last month as part of an effort in Pennsylvania to give corrections workers more of a heads-up if Harrisburg intends to close a prison within the state. Senate Bill 748, signed by Wolf on Oct. 24, requires that state officials in the capital of Harrisburg must give three months’ advance notice to corrections workers and civic authorities that the prison will be closed, according to the Morning Call. Officials say this is better than having “no warning at all,” both for corrections employees and the state.

The Morning Call reported that the initial window proposed when Senate Bill 748, the Public Safety Facilities Act, was introduced in the spring of 2017 by state Sen. Dave Argall (R-Schuylkill) could not be less than one year. Wolf, a Democrat, opposed such a lengthy window, and the two sides finally settled on the lesser window ahead of any such closure.

The three months required by Senate Bill 748 would give corrections workers at a facility to be shuttered enough time to prepare to find new postings.

“We think it’s a good compromise,” said Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel in a statement provided to Correctional News. “We strongly support the timeline for staff to choose which facility they’d like to transfer to. It’s reasonable and makes sense.”

Wetzel’s praise was echoed in a public statement released by state Sen. John Yudichak (D-Luzerne/Carbon), who said the bipartisan legislation “ensures a deliberative and informed process will be exercised by the Commonwealth prior to the closure of any state correctional institution or state police barracks. … Their families and the communities they serve deserve to be heard before a public facility is closed.”

Morning Call reported that the Pennsylvania House Appropriations Committee estimated the heads-up timeline ahead of a prison closure would not cost taxpayers any money despite a previous projection from the Department of Corrections that a one-year closure window would cost Pennsylvanians an estimated $50 annually.

Wolf has continued many of the prison reforms of his predecessor, Republican Tom Corbett, striking down certain mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes and thereby reducing the state’s prison population, according to Morning Call.