Government & Politics
9:00 pm
Wed January 9, 2013

State Prison Closures Will Eliminate Hundreds of Local Jobs

The Corbett administration's plan to close two western Pennsylvania prisons would eliminate nearly 900 jobs from Westmoreland and Cambria Counties.

All of the employees at the two prisons will be offered new positions with the Corrections Department at other facilities, including the new Centre County prison that will essentially replace the two local penitentiaries. New positions may also be available at an unopened 300-bed facility in Indiana County, which could also accept some of the 2,000 inmates who would be transferred after this spring's closures.

The Corbett administration announced the closures Wednesday as an effort to save money. Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said it could save $23 million this year alone by shifting inmates from the older two prisons to the brand-new facility in Centre County, with higher savings in later years.

"We’re keeping essentially the same number of beds, and we’re doing it for 23 million dollars cheaper," said Wetzel.

With the closure of State Correctional Institution Greensburg, roughly 370 jobs would be uprooted from the seat of Westmoreland County. County Commissioner Chuck Anderson said he was "blindsided" by the news. He said it's "appalling" that the county would lose so many well-paying jobs with good benefits packages.

"Those are people that are going to stores, buying groceries, buying gas, building houses -- doing what they do with their families," said Anderson. "Also, it's an impact on the people that are supplying the prison, the folks that are bringing in food and water and all the other things that are required down there."

Anderson said he's going to do everything he can to stop the closure from taking effect.

That sentiment was echoed by fellow Westmoreland County Commissioner Ted Kopas, who also criticized Governor Corbett's handling of the closures.

"There was really no process to this," said Kopas. "I don't know that there were any hearings that were ever held. It really just blindsided the whole area, and that's not the way business should be done. Our governor frankly should be ashamed of the way in which he handled this."

Kopas said he'll gather together local elected officials with the labor union representing prison employees to concert the efforts to stop the closure.

In Cambria County, about 500 people working at SCI Cresson will either be relocated or unemployed after the June 30 closures. The Cambria County Commissioners' office did not respond to a request for comment.

The last time the state closed a prison was in Pittsburgh in 2007, but the facility was reopened in 2009. Corrections Secretary Wetzel said that won't happen with these two facilities.

"We have no intention of reopening these facilities," said Wetzel. "Old facilities do not meet our needs. We started early on with saying, 'We’re going to replace old capacity with new capacity.'  It’s more efficient, it’s safer, it’s better to operate, and it meets our needs."

The two prisons would likely be sold after their closure.

The Greensburg facility was opened in 1969 as a county jail. The Cresson facility was built back in 1913 as a tuberculosis sanitarium; it later became a state hospital before being converted into a prison.

Families in both counties can expect a longer drive to visit inmates. The new SCI Benner Township facility in Centre County will be more than two hours away from Greensburg by car, and more than an hour away from Cresson. The unopened SCI Pine Grove prison in Indiana County is about an hour away from both Cresson and Greensburg.