State Sen. Wozniak to voice concerns at hearing on prison closures

The state Senate Judiciary Committee will meet next week for a hearing on plans to shutter two state prisons and move inmates to a new facility set to open this year in Centre County.

A 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 Department of Corrections said this week.

Some inmates were set to arrive at the new facility as early as this week, according to a report published by the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat. The newspaper reported inmates in the mental health wing at a facility in Cresson, Cambria County, one of the two prisons set to close, will be the first to move.

Meanwhile, state Sen. John Wozniak, whose district includes Cambria County and a slice of eastern Centre County, plans to make his constituents’ concerns heard at the hearing in Harrisburg. More than 500 people are employed at the State Correctional Institution in Cresson, which is located in Wozniak’s district.

Wozniak, in a statement issued Wednesday, was critical of what he called a lack of public input into the decision to close prisons in Cresson and Greensburg.

“Obviously, the secretive way it was handled and the cagey way it was announced make everyone suspicious of how the plan would stand up to public scrutiny,” he said. “I found out from a reporter. That’s not a good sign.”

Wozniak is not a formal member of the judiciary committee, but was granted committee-member privileges for the hearing, his office said.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to participate in the hearing,” he said. “The department’s plan has raised a lot of questions in my district and I’m looking forward to posing them to the decision-makers.”

Department of Corrections officials have said the State Correctional Institution at Benner will get inmates from the two state prisons that are closing in an effort to save money.

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said closures of the older facilities will save $23 million by running the more efficient prison in Benner Township.

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 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.