How prison closings could impact local facilities

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Selected inmates at Benner State Prison help to train rescue dogs until they find their forever home.
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Selected inmates at Benner State Prison help to train rescue dogs until they find their forever home.

Pennsylvania has 26 state prisons. For now.

On Friday, the state announced plans to close two of the buildings by June 30.

Centre County’s Rockview and Benner state prisons will not be affected. Neither will surrounding counties’ facilities, such as Quehanna Boot Camp and Houtzdale state prison in Clearfield County, Huntingdon and Smithfield state prisons in Huntingdon County or the Muncy women’s facility in Lycoming County.

Five are on the chopping block. Pittsburgh state prison in Allegheny County and Mercer state prison in Mercer County are on the western side of the state, but Frackville state prison in Schuylkill County, Retreat state prison in Luzerne County and Waymart in Wayne County are located within northeastern Pennsylvania.

Pittsburgh, built in 1882, is the oldest and largest of the five under consideration, with an operational capacity of 1,803. Closing it would mean $81 million in savings. Retreat is the smallest at 1,104 bed operational capacity. Shutting it down saves $46 million. Frackville, built in 1978, offers the least savings at $44 million. Waymart saves the most at $82 million.

In a conference call with reporters, Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel addressed questions of overcrowding by drawing a line between those operational capacities and “emergency capacities.” According to those figures, every one of the five prisons is below capacity, although three of them exceed their capacity under the operational stats.

That would allow the state to redistribute the 2,000-3,000 prisoners from the closings through the other prisons in the system. Benner was at 109.9 percent of its 1,900 operational capacity as of Nov. 30, and Rockview was at 105 percent of its 2,283. Under the emergency capacity figures, another 222 prisoners could be sent to Benner and 204 to Rockview.

According to the state, every prison in the system would have room for additional prisoners under the emergency capacity numbers.

Wetzel cited a consent decree regarding California’s prisons that would allow up to 131 percent of capacity. California has had a prison overcrowding problem for years.

“You aren’t seriously saying Pennsylvania should model itself after California?” a reporter asked.

“I don’t know how you got that,” Wetzel said.

He called the emergency capacity situation “not ideal.”

“But we’re not in ideal times,” Wetzel said. “Choices were to reduce staffing or programming or this.”

Wetzel said the department had about $200 million in deficit to make up under the governor’s proposed budget numbers, something they found out about two weeks ago. Closing two of the prisons will save about $40 million to $160 million. Wetzel said the remaining deficit would be made up through other programs, including reducing by half the number of people served by the state’s community corrections centers and “other administrative savings,” including “a bunch of other efficiency stuff that should get us in the ballpark.”

There could also be some creative propositions. Wetzel said they are looking at renting the closed facilities to other states with overcrowding issues or to the federal government. He cited the possible need for increased beds for people being deported if President-elect Donald Trump keeps campaign promises about sending undocumented individuals to their home countries. Clinton County Correctional Facility is one place Immigrations and Customs Enforcement contracts with to house detainees.

All affected employees will be offered a position within the DOC, Wetzel said. That happened again when Cresson and Greensburg prisons were closed in 2013. Wetzel said all but three of the 880 impacted employees either retired or transferred.

He said the size of the prison system makes that possible.

“We have 90 to 100 people retire a month,” Wetzel said.

At the five prisons in question, employee numbers range from 371 at Retreat to 663 at Waymart. Of those, 95 to 173 employees are already eligible for retirement or would be within four years.

The DOC learned other things from the 2013 closures.

“When we closed Greensburg and Cresson, we did it poorly,” Wetzel said.

That time, they worked on a list of 10 facilities. They whittled it down to two and announced the closures.

“Now we are just kind of pulling the curtain back,” he said. “Last time, all we focused on was DOC. Now we've added a layer of impact on the community.”

As legislative Republicans prepare to square off with Gov. Tom Wolf over the budget, state Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, responded to the cuts.

“If we are in a position in Pennsylvania that the prison population has decreased so that facilities can be closed, then this is a good day,” Corman said in a statement. “This is exactly what we envisioned when, in 2012 under Gov. Corbett, we began passing the Justice Reinvestment Initiatives. It signals the success of these ongoing initiatives that were designed to address prison overcrowding and reduce costs. It also is an indicator that we have less crime and need less money from taxpayers to support the prison system.