Pittsburgh Prison Already Shrinking As Closing Gets Underway

Feb 20, 2017

The process of closing a massive state prison complex in Pittsburgh has made progress in the weeks since it was announced, including the transfer of some inmates to other facilities and a decision by the Corrections Department about where it will relocate the prison's medical and therapeutic programs.

Members of the union that represents corrections officers at Pittsburgh State Prison have until Friday to fill out and return a survey in which they will tell the agency where they would prefer to be transferred, and work has begun on figuring out how best to use the 24-acre property on the Ohio River, just north of downtown.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf decided to shut down the aging prison in a move designed to capitalize on shrinking prisoner numbers to save about $81 million annually.

The facility had nearly 1,900 inmates on Jan. 26, when Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said the administration chose to shut down one prison, not two as previously announced, from a list that also included Frackville, Mercer, Retreat and Waymart.

The inmate population at Pittsburgh State Prison is already down to just under 1,600, and the Office of Population Management is working to determine where they will be relocated.

For now, counties in western Pennsylvania are still sending their freshly sentenced defendants to Pittsburgh, but a new receiving facility will soon be established. From there, they're transferred to Camp Hill State Prison to be classified and diagnosed.

The Corrections Department will be offering jobs elsewhere to all of the 555 employees.

Jason Bloom, president of the corrections officers' union, said his members "aren't happy" and warned that shuttering the prison had implications for the rest of the system.

"Their lives have been changed dramatically with very little notice," he said. "It's imperative that the Legislature put into statute a transparent process that properly determines if there's a need for future closures. Our system is bursting at 105 percent capacity. We have inmates in county jails. Public safety decisions should be based on prison population, not tax dollars."

A meeting will be held in the coming days for the facility's employees to learn about the institutions where they may be transferred.

State Sen. Wayne Fontana, a Democrat who represents the district where the prison is located, said he has encouraged the administration to do what it can to help affected workers with relocation costs.

"I wish I could still fight it, but the decision has been made," Fontana said. "The process of how these employees are going to be transferred is a concern. What kind of costs are going to be incurred by them, if any?"

The state has also determined where it will relocate the specialized units and programs that were housed in Pittsburgh, including facilities that provide cancer treatment and mental health services. They are being transferred to eight other prisons among the 25 other facilities.

Experts are also looking into the future use of the property, which has been a prison since 1882 and includes 42 structures and 10 housing units.

Fontana said the neighboring area consists largely of industrial, manufacturing and commercial enterprises, including a nearby county sewage treatment plant, making the prison land an unlikely candidate for residential development. He said the future tenant or owner may simply raze the buildings.

"Put this back on the tax rolls and create jobs, that's the idea," Fontana said.

Wetzel has brought back a retired warden, former Albion State Prison Superintendent Nancy Giroux, to oversee issues related to the closing so Pittsburgh's superintendent can focus on day-to-day prison operations.

Officials said Friday the plan is on track to meet the projected closure date of June 30.