The Corbett administration's plan to close two state prisons in western Pennsylvania encountered turbulence Tuesday as some senators and union leaders called for slowing down the process to allow the roughly 800 employees at the two facilities to plan their futures.
The discussion at a two-hour Senate Judiciary Committee hearing focused as much on the lack of advance warning and the upheaval facing employees at Greensburg and Cresson prisons as it did on the cost-cutting plan to shut down the facilities by June 30.
Critics on the committee included both Republicans and Democrats.
Sen. Randy Vulakovich (R- Allegheny County) said the employees should be given more time to make what could be life-altering decisions. They had until Tuesday, less than two weeks after the plan was made public, to state geographic preferences for other jobs in the prison system.
"These are major decisions in people's lives. ... I just don't think we've given them the proper time to make a proper decision," the Allegheny County Republican said before a crowd of about 100 people, including many guards who bused in from Greensburg prison.
"Give these people some time. They need to figure it out" - Roy Pinto
"Give these people some time. They need to figure it out," said Roy Pinto, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association
Senator John Wozniak (D-Cambria) said the administration should handle the prison closure as if it were a private business.
“If the private sector closed down a facility of 500 manufacturing jobs, the state would be there with a team to try to ease the burden or try to find a financial package to keep that factory here,” he said. “We should be doing the same thing with a team to try and make sure that we find a new use for the facility and we find work for these people.”
State Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said the employee notifications, made on the same day the closings were announced publicly, were "consistent with the contract" but acknowledged they should have been made earlier.
Wetzel said he is confident all of the displaced employees can find new jobs elsewhere in the prison system if they are willing to move. A temporary hiring freeze was instituted in December to create more job openings, he said.
"The good news is, we're not talking about unemployment, we're talking about employment elsewhere," he said.
Driven by population numbers
Many of the 2,400 inmates at Greensburg and Cresson are expected to be transferred into the new, 2,000-bed Benner State Prison near State College, which originally had been planned to provide room for a rapidly growing prison population.
The state prison population is expected to "drop fairly significantly over the next three years," Wetzel said, largely because of new laws that reserve prison beds for the most dangerous criminals and stress rehabilitation for non-violent offenders while diverting them to nonprison settings.
The closings are expected to save $23 million in the fiscal year that starts July 1 and $35 million a year after that.
Several committee members complained they were kept out of the loop on the closing for too long.
"Your notification sucked,” Wozniak said to a round of applause. “I received that information from an AP reporter before I got it from the administration. That's not the way to do business.”
Wetzel drew scattered groans and catcalls from the audience when he revealed that the state plans to hire outside contractors to handle security, maintenance and other functions at the mothballed prisons at an annual cost of $5.5 million. Wetzel said the unions would have an opportunity to make a counterproposal.