Lawmakers: Cresson prison to close

HARRISBURG – The state Department of Corrections is planning to close Cresson and Greensburg state prisons in western Pennsylvania and open a newly built facility near State College that has remained vacant since it was completed a year ago, lawmakers told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel planned to make the announcement publicly today, and a department spokeswoman declined to comment on the matter. Lawmakers were briefed on the plans Tuesday.

Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria, said a member of Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration told him that the move is being made to control costs at older prisons. Most prisoners will move to Benner State Prison, while employees at the Greensburg and Cresson prisons will be offered jobs at other state prisons within 50 miles, he said.

“I can understand the dating of building and structures, but my concern is for people and their families,” said Wozniak, whose district includes Cresson. “These are corrections officers. These people have families and high-stress jobs. I’d like to see these people taken care of.”

Cambria County Commissioner Douglas Lengenfelder said he first heard on Tuesday that the prison would close.

“It’s a shame that we’re losing some of those jobs and opportunities that were with the prison,” Lengenfelder said. “Any time you’re losing business within the county, there is going to be an impact,” he said.

“How much of an impact is hard to say or be understood.”

Cresson Mayor Patrick Mulhern described the loss of the prison as “insurmountable” to the community.

“You just can’t imagine the impact,” Mulhern said Tuesday. “We don’t know what it’s going to involve. It’s scary.”

Like many prison employees, Mulhern said he was caught off guard after he first heard the news Tuesday.

But the mayor said he would not let the state close the prison without a fight.

“I’m going to be in there kicking and screaming” to keep the prison open and people in their jobs, Mulhern said.

A 2011 Department of Corrections statistical report listed 502 employees at SCI Cresson. Of those, 311 were listed as security staff.

SCI Cresson Superintendent Kenneth Cameron and Cambria County Prison Warden John Prebish have already begun discussions concerning probation and prisoner transfer issues resulting from the impending closure, Lengenfelder said.

Cameron could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Sen. Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, said she would call for hearings on the move, which she criticized as lacking transparency.

“I’m going to do whatever I can do to get answers and make sure the process is open and understand why this decision was made, how they came to it,” Ward said.

The labor union that represents prison guards, the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, said it hadn’t been told about the plans.

“If this is the case, the PSCOA was not consulted and will look at all options,” union president Roy Pinto said in a statement. “Such closings will hurt thousands of families and devastate the local economies in those areas.”

Benner State Prison in Bellefonte cost nearly $200 million to build and can hold about 2,000 inmates.

Cresson became a state prison in 1987 but had been a state hospital before that and was originally opened in 1913 as a tuberculosis sanatorium, according to the Department of Corrections. It houses about 1,400 inmates. Greensburg was originally built in 1969 and houses 988 inmates, according to the department.

The state counts more than 51,000 inmates, including about 2,400 in county jails or community correctional centers. The state says it has beds for more than 48,000, but Pinto said the system was built to handle well below 40,000.

Mirror Staff Writer Zach Geiger contributed to this report.