Column | Pennsylvania’s prison workers deserve better

When the state Department of Corrections moved to close state prisons in Greensburg and Cresson without any warning to its corrections officers, their families or those communities, it set a precedent that should concern communities that host state prisons across the state.

To understand the concern requires context.

On the evening of Jan. 8, state legislators were notified of a formal announcement of the closings to come the following day. Several media outlets reported the closings that night.

How did many of the officers in those prisons learn of the closings? From inmates.

That’s right: Corrections officers learned the news of the closings after being told by inmates at Greensburg and Cresson who had seen the media reports on television. The news spread quickly.

On Jan. 9, just one hour before the state made its official announcement, the state finally saw fit to notify the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, which represents 600 employees in both prisons.

During testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, corrections officials acknowledged that the department had started internal discussions on closing facilities as early as last June. Yet, they kept it to themselves until January.

If the department had chosen to work with us, we could have helped to ease the impact on our members. Don’t we owe the people who handle our state’s most violent criminals at least that much?

Our members are in danger every day. Some have been brutally beaten; others are forced to undergo constant testing for disease after inmates have gassed them. For those unaware, gassing is when an inmate throws a bag of urine or feces at an officer or an officer is spat upon. Some inmates suffer from various diseases, including HIV.

Officers will tell you they’d rather be beaten than gassed because physical injuries can heal.

We realize that, occasionally, life blindsides us by unexpected events. But this did not need to be such a blindsided event. In fact, the department actually allowed one of our members to transfer into the Cresson facility in December and never said a word.

As bad as the harm is to those in Greensburg and Cresson, there is an additional fear and concern by other officers and their families. They all want to know what facility is next because, under the current system, no one will know until it’s too late.

The state is currently building a new prison in Graterford. The plan is to replace the facility that currently exists there, but will the department use this new jail as an opportunity to also close others without any warning?

An excellent model for public inclusion in the closure process was readily available and would have provided opportunities for all stakeholders to offer input.

In 2005, the federal government implemented the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission to provide an open process to carefully and thoughtfully evaluate the closing of military bases. The commission recognized that, although the military value of a base was of compelling importance, so was the impact on the host communities and personnel. The mission statement for the commission is as follows:

“While giving priority to the criteria of military value, the commission will also take into account the human impact of the base closures and will consider the possible economic, environmental, and other effects on the surrounding communities.”

The commission held community meetings in the various locations that had been identified for possible base closure. They solicited comments and suggestions from community leaders, area businesses and employees. When the base closures were announced, the communities and employees that were impacted at least had fair warning and were given an opportunity to present their cases for keeping their bases open. As important, community leaders were able to plan for the worst-case scenario.

Was it too much to ask that our state government demonstrate the same compassion and concern for its employees and the impacted communities?

Seldom is the best decision made in a vacuum.