Ceremony marks opening of Benner state prison; public tours of the facility continuing

Inmates will begin arriving at the State Correctional Institution at Benner on April 15, prison Superintendent Marirosa Lamas said during a tour Monday that helped mark the official opening of the facility.

Lamas, who also serves as superintendent for neighboring Rockview state prison, said approximately 186 inmates will be transported to the prison each week until the facility is at full capacity — roughly 2,000 prisoners.

It will bring the total number of inmates at the two state prisons along Benner Pike to between 4,400 and 4,500, she said.

The $200 million prison is expected to be fully operational by July 1.

A ceremony Monday morning marked the official opening of the facility, even though a number of employees have been working for weeks to get the site up and running.

Lamas joined local, state and federal officials and dignitaries for a ribbon-cutting ceremony that marked the next chapter for the facility after years of planning and construction. Construction started on the site in August 2010.

The result of all the work, according to Lamas, is a prison that is the most technologically advanced facility in the state corrections system and is among the most secure in the country.

Some of that technology was on display during public tours that followed the ceremony. Computer systems are integrated throughout the facility, allowing guards to closely monitor inmates. Smart boards in prison classrooms help teachers prepare inmates to earn their GED diplomas.

The tours offered a rare glimpse behind the walls of a medium-security prison, where access is limited and cameras and recording devices are forbidden.

Inmates will be separated into eight housing units, or cell blocks. Each is surrounded by a fenced concrete “yard” that can be used by inmates if the prison’s two larger grass yards are unavailable.

Inside the housing units, prisoner populations are further split. Guard stations behind computer panels offer direct views of each cell. Inside those cells, inmates have small rooms with single, slit windows for a view.

The technology and the ability to segregate prisoner populations inside the cell blocks offers protection for the men and women who work at the facility, Lamas said.

The housing units surround a large building that helps prison employees achieve another goal — getting inmates back on the right track.

Down maze-like halls and through numerous locked doors are a gymnasium, a barber shop, a chapel and classrooms. The latter, large and brightly lit, allows inmates to take a variety of educational courses.

State Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said one of the prison’s missions is to rehabilitate the 90 percent of inmates who at some point will return to society.

“They will be our neighbors,” he said during the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Despite the $200 million price tag, and the technology and safety features, the state’s investment in the new prison will save taxpayer money, state Sen. Jake Corman said.

Department of Corrections officials have said the state expects to save $23 million by shutting prisons in Cresson, Cambria County, and Greensburg, Westmoreland County, and moving inmates to the new Benner facility.

“The facility will pay for itself in time,” Corman said.