Prison Closure Process Criticized

As the Department of Corrections moves forward with plans to close two prisons in western Pennsylvania, what many described as a “hasty” process was put under the microscope at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. 

“We were planning in-house to try to do it in the best manner, but there really isn’t a playbook, and the way that the staff found out – primarily by TV – is just inappropriate,” Corrections Secretary John Wetzel acknowledged to the committee.  “That’s my responsibility.” 

Earlier this month, Wetzel’s department announced that SCI Cresson and SCI Greensburg are scheduled to close by June 30th.  These aging facilities would be replaced by SCI Benner in Centre County. 

But the decision blindsided the 800 employees at those two facilities.  “You’re asking people to move their entire lives, and to make a big change, and you’re giving them – I don’t know – 11-days to make a decision,” lamented Senator Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland), who believes the workers are being treated terribly.   

More than 560-positions will be available at SCI Benner.  Wetzel says the balance of interested employees will be given the opportunity to transfer elsewhere in the state prison system. 

“I suggest that we delay these shutdowns, for at least a year, until we can get everybody in position,” Senator Jim Brewster (D-Westmoreland) said to a rare smattering of applause in the Senate hearing room.   

But delays too would have their own negative consequences, according to Secretary Wetzel, who points out the decisions is scheduled to save the state $23-million dollars a year starting with the new state budget.