CRESSON – It’s been over a year since state officials first announced the impending closure of two state correctional institutions, citing high maintenance costs for its older facilities and a declining state inmate population.
Correctional officers and county officials alike said it’s been a tough transition to heal wounds and for transferred employees to adjust to a new work environment – with new co-workers, job titles and responsibilities.
While most employees said they’ve moved on, some local officials said it’s going to take more time for the region to bounce back from the devastating loss of jobs and residents.
No one saw it coming
“It was a very, very hush-hush thing,” said former Cresson Borough Mayor Patrick Mulhern, who also served on the community relations boards for SCI Cresson and the Federal Correctional Institution at Loretto during his eight-year tenure. “We didn’t get to know anything that was going on until it happened.”
Opened in 1987, SCI Cresson was a medium-security, all-male state prison that held roughly 1,400 prisoners and employed 500 people.
News that the facility, along with SCI Greensburg, was to close by the end of June 2013 was first leaked to local media Jan. 8, a day ahead of a planned press conference by Corrections Secretary John Wetzel.
Lilly resident Jim Bossler recalled second-shift officers being approached by inmates with the news.
“Inmates were coming up and telling them, ‘Hey, did you know we’re closing?'” he said. “That’s a hell of a way to find out you’re done.”
A majority of SCI Cresson employees were able to find work elsewhere within the department: 435 were transferred to another corrections facility – 286 of them to SCI Benner – and four were placed in a noncorrections facility, according to state records.
Sixty-one retired, including Bossler, who had worked at the prison for 25 1/2 years.
“I was going to do another three years. It was heartbreaking, for the friendships you build up,” he said.
“I’d done this job for more than half my life. I was institutionalized myself.”
And some remain bitter still. One corrections officer, who talked with a reporter anonymously because he continues to work in the prison system, said many employees had just purchased houses in the area when they learned of the closure.
“It didn’t hurt me as much because I’m pretty much stable in my home, around the area. I’m not going to have that much more time to do [before retirement],” he said. “But we had a lot of young people. … They had just got in the first-time homebuyers program and signed an agreement that said, ‘I agree to stay in this home for five years.'”
A hiring freeze was initiated in December 2012, barely a month before the state announced the two facilities would close. The corrections officer said that had employees known, they could have started the transfer process earlier or made other plans.
“We had guys from [SCI Smithfield or SCI Somerset] they allowed to transfer into Cresson only two weeks before the announcement,” he said. “The guy who had a job at Smithfield didn’t have the seniority to bid back to that and ended up going to Benner. He got a job … but that was pretty dirty, I thought.”
Secretary Wetzel said in a February 2013 state House hearing that prison reform measures passed by the General Assembly had allowed the state to slow prison population growth, with plans to eventually reduce its numbers.
Recent department statistics show growth slowed to an average increase of 874 inmates per year between 2011 and 2013, compared with an average increase of 923 inmates per year from 2004-10.
That data, coupled with inmate population projections, prompted officials to consider using SCI Benner as a “capacity replacement” facility, rather than an expansion of the system, Wetzel said.
The next step was identifying which facilities to close.
With SCIs Cresson and Greensburg being of roughly equal size to SCI Benner, and as they were two of the more expensive facilities to run, Wetzel said officials decided in December 2012 to shutter the prisons at an expected cost savings of $23 million within the first year, and $35 million every year afterward.
After having spent $5.5 million to mothball the two prisons, and another $16.4 million on short- and long-term staff transfers to facilities other than SCI Benner, state data show a nearly $45 million in savings in personnel and operating costs, for a total $23.2 million in savings.
But State Rep. Gary Haluska, D-Patton, said he doesn’t think all the numbers add up – particularly when it comes to the purported drop in the number of inmates.
“If it was such a drop in the prison population that we had to close Cresson, which we spent an exorbitant amount of money on, why are we at the point now that we’re having county prisons take state prisoners?” he said. “People are breaking probation, and the state’s not going after them.”
Act 122, also known as the Criminal Justice Reform Act – and part of the state’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative – created the Technical Parole Violator program. Wetzel touted the act as a means for corrections to focus on education and job-training programs, to prepare inmates for release and possibly prevent future crimes.
The state defines a technical parole violator as someone who violates the terms of his or her parole “other than by the commission of a new crime.”
Enacted in January 2013, the program replaced a pre-release program and allowed the state to contract with outside facilities – including county jails – to house state parole violators.
“We’re not overcrowded with them, by any means,” said Cambria County Prison Warden John Prebish Jr.
Prebish said as of Friday, the county jail housed 59 technical parole violators, making up about 13 percent of the prison’s total 450 inmates.
According to the state, there are 810 total technical parole violators in county jails. And officials said no matter where a parole violator is held – whether it’s in a state prison, county jail or secure parole violator center – they are counted toward the state inmate population, and the program isn’t a means to artificially lower its numbers.
Prebish said before the parolee program was in place, the jail often held overflow prisoners out of SCI Cresson at a rate of $55 per inmate per day. He said they often held more prisoners then than they do now with state parole violators, whom they house for $68 per inmate per day.
“It’s not as large as I ever thought it would have went to,” he said of the state parole violators. “It’s gone down.”
Prebish also said allowing the state inmates to be housed in smaller, sometimes specialized facilities where education is part of their release plan, can work out better for everyone.
“You can throw anybody away, lock them up,” Prebish said, but it’s better to treat some of the problems related to criminal behavior and reduce recidivism.
One of the reasons Haluska and others remain critical of the state’s decision to close the prisons is that despite the cost savings – actual and projected – the corrections budget continues to swell.
The department has said it expects to save money through initiatives like the parole violator program and by closing antiquated prisons, but its budget has grown by about 10 percent since 2011, with Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed 2014-15 budget pushing corrections spending to over $2 billion for the first time.
Bensinger attributed the spending spike to increased expenses for employee benefits, utilities and other bill payments, as well as contractual raises for staff and management.
Despite the relatively small increases in the state inmate population over the last few years, and expectations that the population will drop, the cost to incarcerate inmates keeps growing. A February 2014 analysis from the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center projects incarceration costs at $41,100 per inmate in 2014-15 under Corbett’s budget.
Although the Justice Reinvestment Initiative was expected to save $28 million over five years, with $7 million of that money to be reinvested and generate more savings, the center said “the initiative has not demonstrated any notable savings” to date to help bring the state’s corrections budget down.
And even while the state says it expects to reduce its inmate population, it’s continuing to add beds at several facilities.
SCI Benner may have been an almost even trade for SCIs Cresson and Greensburg, but around the same time SCI Cambridge Springs added 230 beds. SCI Forest added 96. And SCI Cambridge is to add another 150 beds this May.
There also will be another net gain of 880 beds by September 2015, when SCIs Phoenix East and Phoenix West open in Montgomery County to replace SCI Graterford.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” Haluska said. “What they say and what’s actually happening just don’t correlate.”
A long road ahead
Former Mayor Mulhern said with Mount Aloysius College and the Cresson Secure Treatment Unit to fall back on, and St. Francis University nearby, there are still business opportunities in the area and the town will move on.
But the uprooting of people’s lives and the loss of employment was devastating, he said, and Cresson may not realize the full impact for some time.
Some real estate agents expected a dip in home values and sales after the lockup’s closure, but Louann Hoffman, president of the Allegheny Highland Association of Realtors, said a majority of former SCI Cresson employees decided to remain in their homes.
“Ninety percent of them are staying here,” she said.
But those numbers are far from guaranteed.
Richard Wray, vice president of Cresson Area Chamber of Commerce, said most employees who now work at prisons in Huntingdon or Centre counties carpool together from the area and seem to have adjusted to the new routine.
“How long that will last I’m unsure,” he said.
Johnstown Area Regional Industries President Linda Thomson said county leaders also have been working to keep SCI Cresson’s former employees.
“We want to keep those folks in the region,” she said. “We don’t want them leaving. There’s a lot of great people who worked there.”
She said many were upset the decision to close the prison was made without consulting local leaders to discuss what the local impact would be, but she said the state has since been helpful.
She said business and municipal leaders have met with state officials, and she believes all parties are working together as the state looks to sell SCI Cresson’s grounds.
“We’re trying to put our best foot forward and help people the best we can,” she said. “Obviously we don’t have [all the answers] at this point, but at least there’s a cooperative feeling among those who are trying to look at alternate uses for the site and helping people get re-employed.”
State officials have firmly denied rumors that SCI Cresson could reopen.
Joe Fox, who was president of the local Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association at SCI Cresson, and now heads the SCI Benner union, said when SCI Pittsburgh closed in 2005, the discussion was similar to what state officials said about SCI Cresson last year.
SCI Pittsburgh was reopened in 2007.
“I’m not going to rule it out,” Fox said of the prison reopening. “I’m not holding my breath, either.”
The state Department of General Services continues to survey the grounds and prepare for it to go on the market.
“We continue to work with the community and other state agencies to find an appropriate use or function of that property,” said department spokesman Troy Thompson. “We want to get it off the state inventory and on local tax rolls.”
Wray said the department has been in touch with him and other leaders. Many remain optimistic that a solution will be found someday, he said.
“There’s always hope that something will come to our area to perhaps provide variety and opportunity for residents … to have employment within the county,” he said.