Prison outrage aired

CRESSON – Anger and frustration – most of it directed toward Department of Corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel and Gov. Tom Corbett – dominated discussion during a public meeting to discuss the closure of the State Correctional Institution at Cresson.

The public meeting at the Cresson Volunteer Fire Company drew about 200 individuals, including corrections officers, business owners and local government officials. Many expressed outrage over the way the closings of SCI Cresson and SCI Greensburg were announced in early January and state officials’ lack of response to inquiries behind the move.

State Rep. Gary Haluska, D-Patton, expressed his outrage at Corbett and other state officials’ continued indifference to hardships faced by employees and nearby residents affected by the closure of the prison.

But with the governor’s office, state House and state Senate controlled by Republicans, Haluska said lawmakers’ pleas to justify the prison closures have not been answered.

“We can kick, scream, yell, give our viewpoint, but that’s about it,” Haluska said.

Corbett campaigned on ending crime and promised not to raise taxes, Haluska said.

“He didn’t tell us he was going to sell the state.”

The prison received about $60 million in upgrades during the past decade, Haluska said.

Numerous corrections officials echoed Haluska’s remarks. The prison, despite its age, is a modern facility with extensive mental health services and dozens of other upgrades, employees said.

State Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria, said prisons were strategically located in rural Pennsylvania.

“It was a real economic boost to rural Pa.,” Wozniak said.

Shuttering the prison is akin to a huge manufacturing plant suddenly pulling about 500 employees out of the work force – something the state would normally fight to keep in the area, Wozniak said.

During a Senate judiciary hearing on Jan. 22, Wetzel said the way employees were notified of the prison closure was wrong, Wozniak said.

“I think they continue to handle it completely wrong,” Wozniak said.

State Rep Frank Burns, D-East Taylor, said he shared residents’ frustration over the “unprofessional” way the news was announced.

“They’ve been avoiding this,” Burns said of Corbett and Wetzel.

Cambria County Commissioner Thomas Chernisky said he still had yet to receive a response from the governor.

“I think our governor is very arrogant on this,” Chernisky said.

In a letter to Corbett, Chernisky outlined improvements to the prison and reasons why the facility should remain open.

“After King Coal abdicated his throne in Cambria County in the 1980s, a whole generation of former miners retrained themselves as prison guards and helped salvage what remained of the region’s economy,” the letter reads. “Never did those hard-working men dream they’d see those prison jobs pulled out from under them overnight in a move as traumatic as any mine closing ever was.”

Both Corbett and Wetzel were invited to attend the meeting, Burns said. No representatives from the governor’s office or the Department of Corrections attended Thursday evening.

About 15 individuals spoke before the panel of Wozniak, Haluska, Burns, Chernisky and Joe Fox, president of the local Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association at Cresson.

Numerous local officials, including Cresson Mayor Patrick Mulhern, Cambria County District Attorney Kelly Callihan and Cresson borough and townships representatives were in attendance.

“It’s a travesty,” one man said, which drew loud applause.

“They don’t have answers to all these questions,” Haluska responded. “That’s the way this administration works – they just don’t care.”

Patrick Podrasky, Lilly mayor and a maintenance repairman at the prison, said the Corrections Department’s estimated savings were really a “smoke screen” to eliminate jobs for political gain.

“There is no guarantee that the inmate population will consistently decline … why would Cresson and Greensburg be closing when inmates from Rockview could be moved to Benner, causing the least amount of negative impact to employees, as well as their respective communities?” Podrasky said.

Gerald F. Stevens, board member of Cresson Area Ambulance Services, said the emergency medical service would lose about 80 runs to the prison annually and could be forced to downsize staff.

Stevens said he was shocked to learn that Cresson inmates – and not the corrections officers – were mailed letters of apology for having to be relocated.

The crowd erupted into applause, as one man shouted, “priorities.”

“That’s nice,” Chernisky said of the letters, shaking his head.

“One term and out” and other cries could be heard throughout the evening as residents voiced their distrust and anger at the governor.

“Our security is being played with” for the sake of saving money, Podrasky said.