Legislators meeting about prison closure

CRESSON – Despite making little concrete progress during Tuesday’s Senate judiciary hearing, state legislators are hopeful a community meeting this week to discuss the closure of the State Correctional Institution at Cresson will send a message to Harrisburg officials.

State Rep. Gary Haulska, D-Patton, and other area lawmakers plan to meet with the community, as well as Cresson township and borough officials, at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Cresson Fire Hall, 223 Ashcroft Ave.

Haluska said he hopes residents’ voices are heard and the closure of SCI Cresson can be slowed, despite the Department of Corrections officials’ “failures” to justify their decision to close it.

“They didn’t have the courtesy to talk to any of the local officials, communities, state representatives,” Haluska said of the state’s surprise announcement two weeks ago to shutter the prison.

Haluska said corrections officials and Gov. Tom Corbett adopted a “we’re just going to do it and walk away” attitude concerning the prison closure.

No public input was sought, Haluska said.

Despite their insistence to close the prison, state officials have not attempted to find any alternate uses for the 450-acre site in Cresson Township or ask legislators for ideas, he added.

“Hopefully we can put some pressure on the Corbett administration to answer some of these questions,” Haluska said. “We need to send a clear message to the governor and the Department of Corrections. First, closing SCI Cresson is a bad decision on a number of levels and second, it’s wrong for government to ignore the people who are impacted the most by decisions that government makes.”

Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria, said there might not be many positives to discuss with residents at the meeting.

During the Senate judiciary hearing on Tuesday, John E. Wetzel, corrections secretary, said the decision to close the prison would not change.

Wozniak compared the prison closure to losing a large economic driver such as an automobile manufacturer.

Had employees been tasked with manufacturing components for vehicles, the state would be fighting to keep their jobs in the community, Wozniak said.

“We should be doing the same thing for all our people,” Wozniak said. “That’s shutting down a huge manufacturing plant, in my opinion.”

Cresson Mayor Patrick Mulhern said officials want to protect area residents from paying an “exuberant amount of money” to cover the loss of the prison.

“It’s going to take a toll on people,” Mulhern said.

Employees transferring to other prisons may be forced to sell their homes to be closer to their place of employment, Mulhern said.

Even smaller details many people do not consider will be missed with the prison closure, Mulhern said.

The borough will lose a free labor force previously responsible for collecting trash in the borough and along Route 22 when the prison closes, Mulhern said.

And the ongoing water project in the township will be impacted by changing numbers of customers after the prison is shut down, he said.

“That’s all coming to a screeching halt,” Mulhern said.

Mulhern said he expects a large turnout at Thursday’s meeting. Cresson Borough Council and township officials will be in attendance, he said.

SCI Cresson and SCI Greensburg in Westmoreland County are slated to close by the end of June.

A total of about 800 employees at both prisons were offered the opportunity to transfer to other state prisons, Haluska said.

But many young families already invested in homes or have begun raising families in Cresson, Haluska said. All that could change if prison employees are forced to drive more than an hour to a different correctional facility, he said.

“There’s so many questions out there – all this should have been aired out in meetings with local officials … and public meetings,” Haluska said. “There’s going to be some real hardships for people.”

Corrections officials said the closures would save about $23 million the first year and upward of about $35 million annually.

The combined 2,400 prisoners at the two prisons will be transferred throughout the state prison system, including the newly constructed SCI Benner facility in Centre County.

The $200 million facility in Benner Township has a 2,000-bed capacity, corrections officials said.

Haluska challenged the cost savings, adding that the economic hardships facing Cresson and surrounding communities were not factored into corrections officials’ estimates.

“The Department of Corrections and the Corbett administration should have provided this opportunity for people to gather information and give their input before the decision to close SCI Cresson and SCI Greensburg was made,” Haluska said. “It’s becoming clear, though, that isn’t the way this administration works.”