Officials look to cut costs

CRESSON – The signs bookend Cresson Borough, welcoming visitors and proudly proclaiming “We’re building opportunities!”

But ask many residents, and that same sense of community optimism is missing after learning of the state’s planned closure of the State Correctional Institution at Cresson.

State officials in Harrisburg announced the Cresson prison and SCI Greensburg, in neighboring Westmoreland County, are slated to close by June 30. About 800 employees between the two correctional facilities will be displaced.

Prisoners from the two facilities – about 2,400 individuals – are expected to be transferred throughout the prison system, heavily favoring inmates’ relocation at the newly constructed SCI Benner in Centre County.

Closing the older prison facilities and relocating inmates is expected to save taxpayers $23 million in the first year and about $35 million annually, said John Wetzel, Department of Corrections secretary.

“They are costly to maintain and require more resources,” Wetzel said during a Harrisburg news conference. “The new prison at SCI Benner Township is less costly to operate, requires fewer resources to operate and provides a more secure design for the safety of the staff and inmate population.”

Cresson residents and business owners said they first learned of the closure the same way prison employees did – by watching the evening news or speaking with friends and neighbors Tuesday evening. Many individuals said the same thing – failing to notify prison employees ahead of time was “wrong.”

“A slap in the face,” said one business owner, who asked not to be named.

Prison employees should have been notified before plans to close the prison were made public, the man said.

The affected prison superintendents and local legislators were informed of the state’s plan to close the prisons Tuesday, said Susan McNaughton, corrections spokeswoman. Employees were not notified of the closures Tuesday.

“Everybody was going to be notified today,” McNaughton said Wednesday.

Corrections officials implemented a hiring freeze to allow corrections officers and employees at the two prisons to transfer to any facility within the corrections system, Wetzel said.

The move will allow the employees at Cresson and Greensburg to fill about 700 positions across the state system and the 564 open positions needed to operate SCI Benner, Wetzel said.

Employees’ seniority, pension and pay issues resulting from possible transfers would need to be discussed when state officials meet with representatives from the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, the union which represents the prison guards, McNaughton said.

“Is there going to be a one-for-one match for everybody? I can’t guarantee that,” McNaughton said about seniority and rank. “That’s something that we’re going to have to be working out.”

The majority of the 2,400 inmates displaced from Cresson and Greensburg are expected to be transferred to SCI Benner when the facility officially opens in June. The $200 million prison facility in Benner Township has room for 2,000 beds, Wetzel said.

The remaining inmates will be transferred to other facilities, including about 300 expected to be sent to SCI Pine Grove, McNaughton said.

“Our corrections system is changing and improving as we continue to be fiscally responsible in the way we operate,” Wetzel said. “It doesn’t make sense to continue to operate old, less efficient facilities when a new one is ready to do the same job for less money.”

Although the immediate impact of the closure was unknown, individuals expressed concern for the future of their businesses and town.

Restaurant, gas stations and hotels within 15 miles of Cresson could feel the loss of the prison, once families stop traveling to visit inmates, said Howard Harkins, Cresson Area Chamber of Commerce president.

Harkins said the timing of the announcement came as a surprise – no study or public meetings concerning the shutdown were ever discussed.

“It seems like they’re shooting from the hip,” Harkins said.

The real burden would be placed on employees, who may have to drive up to 100 miles roundtrip to work at a new prison facility, Harkins said.

“Cresson used to be the place to work,” said one man, seated at the dimly lit American Legion on Ashcroft Avenue.