Prison closure looms despite hearing

HARRISBURG – A senate judiciary hearing to discuss the closing this year of two state prisons helped to raise awareness of the local impact area communities will face, but it may have achieved little in terms of changing the institutions’ inevitable fate, legislators said Tuesday.

Two weeks ago, DOC officials announced that the State Correctional Institution in Cresson and the State Correctional Institution at Greensburg would close by June. Employees at SCI Cresson are still “shell shocked,” said Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria.

Wozniak challenged Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel’s assertion that the closures would be beneficial to the state.

“I asked him directly, ‘Is this changing?’ He said, ‘Absolutely not,'” Wozniak said.

Wozniak attended the hearing after being granted special committee members privileges. State Rep. Gary Haluska, D-Patton, was also in attendance.

Both lawmakers criticized the announcement of the prison closures and the lack of transparency behind the move.

“I think it’s gutless the way they’re doing this. Gutless,” Haluska said.

Corrections officials should have given the public advance warning or held public forums when the closures were first considered an option, Haluska said.

“These are major decisions in people’s lives. … I just don’t think we’ve given them the proper time to make a proper decision,” said Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Allegheny.

On Tuesday, Wetzel provided lawmakers with a packet of information collected by the department, including the state’s projected prison inmate population, cost benefits of closing the two prisons and transferring inmates and collective bargaining agreements for employees, said Susan McNaughton, corrections spokeswoman.

Wetzel and the corrections contingent left the hearing immediately after presenting their testimony, Haluska said.

“They didn’t have the courtesy to stay,” Haluska said. “I can see they’re really concerned.”

McNaughton said individuals are free to leave after their portion of the hearing is concluded.

“He still has a system to run,” McNaughton said.

She said Wetzel and corrections officials will work with the departments of Labor and Industry and General Services to visit the Cresson and Greensburg communities in an effort to help with the impact of the institutions’ looming closures.

“[Wetzel] is planning to visit the two institutions in the near future,” but no time frame has been established, McNaughton said.

About 800 employees at the two prisons are expected to lose their existing jobs when the prisons close. A pay freeze within the corrections department will allow employees to transfer to any facility, including newly-constructed SCI Benner in Centre County.

Employees had until Tuesday to request relocation to other state prisons.

Officials from the PA State Corrections Officers Association, the union which represents the prison guards, plan to hold a private meeting in Harrisburg to discuss their options, officials said Tuesday.

“Give these people some time. They need to figure it out,” said Roy Pinto, president of the officers association.

The loss of the prison to the Cresson area would be hard-felt, Wozniak said.

“How about a little empathy for the people who are losing their jobs or have to travel 120 miles a day,” to accept a position at a different prison, he added.

Wozniak said he remained hopeful the hearing “awakened” Wetzel to the various issues and hardships the community will face, but he added the state and corrections department have been less than willing to sit down with local legislators and discuss the closures.

He said DOC officials and Gov. Tom Corbett were invited to attend a community meeting at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 31 at the Cresson Volunteer Fire Department to discuss the local impact of the prison closure.

Haluska said he is holding out little hope of an appearance from the governor’s office or corrections department.

“Our governor is just unbelievable, how little he’s cared about this whole situation,” Haluska said.

Mirror Staff Writer Zach Geiger is at 946-7535. The Associated Press contributed to this report.