Friday, January 6, 2017

Department of Corrections Announces Plan to Close or Reduce State Prisons; One From Schuylkill County

On Friday, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections announced a plan to close or reduce the population of at least one State Prison on Schuylkill County.

Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel met with union officials and the agency’s leadership team to discuss the plan to close two prisons and reduce by half the community corrections population by June 30, 2017, as part of spending reductions in response to the state budget deficit.
“We have implemented a variety of cost savings initiatives over the past several years yet we are again in the position where the Department of Corrections must make significant reductions because of the dire budget forecast,” said Wetzel. “The most significant reduction we can make as an agency is a prison closure.”

“Every affected employee will be offered a position elsewhere in the Department of Corrections,” said Wetzel. “We understand that moving to another facility may be difficult, but we will try to make the transition as seamless as possible.”

Five prisons are under consideration for closure: SCI Mercer in Mercer County, SCI Retreat in Luzerne County and SCI Frackville in Schuylkill County, SCI Waymart in Wayne County and SCI Pittsburgh in Allegheny County.

Wetzel said that the DOC can close prisons without a security risk because of the historic reduction in the inmate population. Also, an additional one thousand unused beds were recently made available at SCI Camp Hill making it feasible to close a second facility.

The department will announce its final decision on January 26.

In making its decision the agency is taking into consideration the ages, sizes, locations, operational costs, and specialty functions of the prisons, as well as economic impact on the affected communities.

SCI Waymart and SCI Pittsburgh, present significant challenges for closure. SCI Waymart serves inmates with serious mental health conditions. SCI Pittsburgh is a diagnostic and classification center for incoming inmates and provides medical specialty services, such as an oncology unit. Transition of these services would be extremely difficult and the agency would incur significant additional costs.

The department closed two institutions - SCI Cresson in Cambria County and SCI Greensburg, Westmoreland County – in 2013.

In anticipation of those closures, the DOC initiated a hiring freeze which allowed vacancies to remain open so that they could be filled by employees displaced by the closures. Similar actions will be taken in this case.

Wetzel said he is committed to providing complete, timely information to all of those involved, including employees, inmates, legislators, and the affected communities.

In addition to the closures, the department is considering several other internal cost-saving measures, such as reducing staff overtime and reducing capacity at community corrections facilities (or halfway houses).