State prison in Benner Township will open in June

The brand new, $200 million state prison in Benner Township will have 2,000 inmates and more than 500 staff on board by the end of June, the state corrections department said Wednesday.

State Correctional Institution at Benner Township will get inmates from two state prisons in western Pennsylvania the state is closing to save money. On Wednesday, Corrections Secretary John Wetzel announced the closures of the state prisons in Cresson, Cambria County, and Greensburg, Westmoreland County, a move he said will save $23 million by running the more efficient prison in Benner Township.

“Our corrections system is changing and improving as we continue to be fiscally responsible in the way we operate,” Wetzel said in a statement. “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.”

The target date to open the Benner Township prison and have the Cresson and Greensburg prisons closed is June 30, Corrections spokeswoman Susan McNaughton said.

The cost to run the Benner Township prison is expected to be $60 million a year, according to the corrections department.

McNaughton said the Corrections Department allocated $200 million for construction costs, and officials expect to spend the full amount.

The state expects it will need 564 employees to run the Benner Township prison, and some of them could come from the shuttered prisons as McNaughton said employees at the Cresson and Greensburg prisons will be able to apply for jobs at Benner.

The employees at Cresson and Greensburg will have other options, too, as Wetzel ordered a hiring freeze in December to keep all jobs open in anticipation of the prisons closing.

In the meantime, corrections officials are meeting with unions and the staff at the Cresson and Greensburg prisons to get them placed in new jobs, including work at the Benner Township prison.

The Benner Township prison will be at its full capacity, 2,000, because the two prisons have a combined population of 2,400. The other 400 inmates will be distributed throughout the state prison system.

State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, a Republican from Bellefonte, praised Wetzel for focusing on efficiency at a time when unemployment is high, the economy is down and government faces spending cuts.

“In order for us to be able to respond to that, we have to make the current costs in government as efficient as possible,” Benninghoff said.