State to close 2 prisons, open new one

By the end of June, the bars will swing shut on the state prisons at Cresson, Cambria County and Greensburg, Westmoreland County.

Most of the inmates will be transferred to a brand new facility in Benner Township, Centre County.

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said during a Wednesday press conference at the Capitol that it'll save taxpayers $23 million the first year, and possibly $35 million per year thereafter.

“When you look at what's going on around the country, old, smaller, expensive prisons are being replaced because corrections costs are being cut.”

Wetzel says Cresson, originally built in 1913 as a sanatorium, cost $103 per day, per inmate to run. Greensburg, built in 1969, costs $110 per day, per inmate. He says the new prison at Benner Township is about $80 per day, per inmate.

Wetzel also pointed to inmate population which has dropped by 500 since June. He said prison reforms are kicking in, so consolidation just makes sense.

“This is a responsible, conservative plan to replace capacity at a time when our population is trending down.”

But not everyone agrees with that assessment.

“I don't want my members put in an unsafe position just because you want to squeeze everybody in to one small area as opposed to the several areas,” said Roy Pinto, president of the Pennsylvania Correctional Officers Association.

Pinto maintains that to make the numbers work, the state is releasing inmates prematurely. In a bad economy, he calls that a bad idea.

“You're putting people at risk by putting inmates back on the street before they should be.”

Pinto is also concerned about the 800 jobs in the shuttering prisons. Secretary Wetzel promises to help them find jobs in the 26 other prisons across Pennsylvania and to work with displaced guards.

But Pinto is skeptical. “Is he gonna take their mortgage? Is he gonna pay to transfer their house out to Benner or wherever they end up? It sounds good but they've never done it in the past and I don't anticipate them doing it this time around.”

Critics also point to SCI Pittsburgh. It was closed in 2007 only to be reopened in 2009. Wetzel's heard that. 

“We have no intention of re-opening these facilities. Old facilities do not meet our needs.”

There are roughly 2,300 inmates in the two prisons that will close. SCI Benner Township will house 2,000 of them. Wetzel says a new 300-bed facility in Pine Grove, Indiana County will be opened to handle the rest.

Wetzel also takes issue with those who say consolidation is unsafe.

“We operate safe facilities. This is one of the safest correctional systems in the country.”

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