New state prison in Benner Township set to open in spring

The new state prison in Benner Township will open this spring and house inmate populations from two prisons in western Pennsylvania the state will shut down, a source with knowledge of the plans confirmed Tuesday.

The state Department of Corrections will close the prisons in Greensburg, Westmoreland County, and Cresson, Cambria County.

The Benner prison will open in April or May, the source said.

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel will announce the moves publicly Wednesday. A corrections spokeswoman declined to elaborate on the announcement.

The Benner state prison, on the grounds of the older Rockview state prison, cost almost $200 million to build and will hold about 2,000 inmates. Rockview will remain open, corrections officials have said.

Employees at the Greensburg and Cresson prisons will be offered jobs at state prisons within 50 miles, said state Sen. John Wozniak, a Democrat from Johnstown whose district includes Cresson.

Wozniak said he was told the closures are to control costs at older prisons.

Sen. Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, said she will call for hearings on the closures and criticized the move as lacking transparency.

The labor union that represents prison guards, the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, said it hadn’t been told about the plans.

“If this is the case, the PSCOA was not consulted and will look at all options,” union president Roy Pinto said in a statement. “Such closings will hurt thousands of families and devastate the local economies in those areas.”

Cresson became a state prison in 1987 but had been a state hospital before that and was originally opened in 1913 as a tuberculosis sanatorium, according to the Department of Corrections. It houses about 1,400 inmates. Greensburg was originally built in 1969 and houses 988 inmates, according to the department.

The state counts more than 51,000 inmates, including about 2,400 in county jails or community correctional centers. The state says it has beds for more than 48,000, but Pinto said the system was built to handle well below 40,000.