Prison closing tough to accept

The surprising announcement that Pennsylvania will close the state correctional institutions at Cresson and Greensburg has two sides.

Certainly like many others, we are concerned about the economic impact closing of the state prison will have on the Cresson area. The prison, which employs 500, is a major producer of well-paying jobs that will be difficult, if not impossible, to replace.

The loss of those wages will be felt across the region, but will hit the Cresson area especially hard. In addition to the loss in wages from employees, area stores and restaurants also likely will see a decline in business because people visiting inmates will be heading elsewhere, likely Centre County given the Department of Corrections’ plan to ship many of the inmates from Cresson and Greensburg to the new SCI Benner or to a new 300-bed housing unit at SCI Pine Grove in Indiana County.

We feel badly about how it will affect local families and businesses and the abrupt way that they learned about the state’s plans. Most learned about the planned closing from the media, when word of it leaked to the media late Tuesday afternoon.

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said closing SCI Cresson and Greensburg and opening the newly built SCI Benner could save the state about $23 million this year and $35 million a year going forward.

It costs nearly $106 per day per inmate for the 2,300 people housed at SCI Cresson and Greensburg. Housing 2,000 inmates at the new SCI Benner will cost about $80 per person per day, Capitolwire reports.

Strictly from a taxpayer standpoint, it’s good news that Pennsylvania is trying to operate more efficiently. A frequent lament of taxpayers is the state needs to find ways to spend less, and often the state prison system is a target for those comments. Corrections is the third-highest appropriation in this year’s state budget behind education and public welfare.

The savings might be tiny compared to the $1.9 billion allocated to the Department of Corrections in the 2012-13 state budget, but any reduction is a win for taxpayers, especially in tough budgetary times. And it comes at a time in which the Corbett administration is forecasting that Pennsylvania will have to allocate $65 million more in the next fiscal year than this one to cover higher corrections costs.

Wetzel told reporters that “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.”

It’s a valid argument – as long as the state’s prison population doesn’t increase.

While Wetzel projected confidence that the state’s prison population would stabilize or decline, that really would buck the long-term trend. The state ended 2012 with 51,184 inmates, a drop of 454 from 2011. But one year doesn’t a trend make. The number of state inmates has declined only three times in the last 40 years.

We hope the Corrections Department isn’t counting its chickens before they hatch.

It would be unfortunate if the state closes the Cresson facility and uproots the employees and their families only to reopen it in a couple of years because more beds in the prison system are needed.

Still, if one of the prisons being closed wasn’t in our backyard, the consolidation plan likely would be praised for its potential cost savings.

Unfortunately for area residents, the negative effects of the change aren’t so easy to dismiss. It’s our families, friends and neighbors whose livelihoods will be affected.

That makes this planned efficiency much harder to feel good about.