Pennsylvania to close 2 prisons as inmate population drops

MARK SCOLFORO, Associated Press

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania prison officials said Friday they will close two prisons this year, citing a declining inmate population, the need to save money and other factors.

The two will be chosen from a list of five prisons: Frackville, Mercer, Pittsburgh, Retreat and Waymart.

A decision will be announced Jan. 26, and the two selected are slated to close by the end of June. The Corrections Department said about 800 staff and about 2,500 inmates will be affected.

In a statement, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf said shuttering two prisons will help the state address its budget deficit.

“By investing in the things that make Pennsylvania a better place, like reducing recidivism and improving our schools, we can ensure the long-term prosperity and safety of our commonwealth,” Wolf said. “I chose to invest in schools — not prisons — because it’s both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.”

To prepare for the closings, the Corrections Department has had a hiring freeze designed to open up jobs for potential transfers from the shuttered prisons. All prison staff will be offered transfers.

The state prison population is now just over 49,000, after reaching nearly 52,000 in 2012. The Corrections Department budget is $2.3 billion.

The prison guards’ union president said he was disappointed the decision had been made to close two prisons without taking public comment, and he called for legislative hearings.

“With fewer prisons, a smaller system could literally burst at the seams,” said Jason Bloom, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association.

State lawmakers can be protective of prisons in their districts, and the plan will be playing out as they work on the state budget in the coming months.

“It shouldn’t be we’re closing prisons based on whether or not the representative or senator has an R or a D behind their name,” Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said. “We need to make good decisions for the long term.”

Space that recently became available at Camp Hill State Prison for an additional 1,000 inmates also contributed to the state’s decision to close two prisons. The Corrections Department also plans to reduce by half the number of inmates in halfway houses under its community corrections program.

Wetzel said halfway houses have not been producing the results the state wants, so their roughly 3,000 beds will be cut to about 1,500. That should produce about $40 million in savings.

The plan is to mothball the two prisons but also explore whether other states or the federal government has interest in renting the facilities. Wetzel said the two buildings might be attractive to the incoming Trump administration, if the president-elect follows through on campaign promises to deport more immigrants with criminal records.

“If he’s going to ramp that up, then he’s going to need capacity quickly,” Wetzel said, calling it a “hail Mary” strategy but one that could generate more money.

Waymart is located 20 miles from Scranton, Frackville about 10 miles from Pottsville, Retreat about 10 miles south of Wilkes-Barre and Mercer 70 miles south of Erie. Pittsburgh is on the Ohio River, just north of downtown.

Corrections officials indicated Waymart and Pittsburgh may be difficult to close because Waymart handles inmates with more severe mental health issues and Pittsburgh serves as a diagnostic and classification center, as well as housing medical services such as a cancer treatment unit.

Pennsylvania currently has 26 prisons, after closing two in 2013, Cresson State Prison and Greensburg State Prison. The state is currently building a new prison in Montgomery County, Phoenix State Prison, alongside an existing prison, Graterford. Wetzel said that when Phoenix opens, and that timing is uncertain, Graterford will close.